Capital Crimes of Cuisine I
First, let me explain that I am not a culinary snob. I
often take Red Wine with fish and engage in cooking practices that are
occasionally unconventional. Nor am I a trained chef or an expert in anything
culinary. I have visited 60+ countries and have enjoyed some fare that that
many in this country have never ever heard of and so I am inclined to be
open-minded about what I will eat. HOWEVER, there are some things that are just
There is a long list of candidates for dishes that should be banned or least never be prepared without a warning label, but today I will focus this “rant” on one dish only, and that is the lovely and sublime pepper steak. Few dishes are as appreciated by true carnivores, but unfortunately few dishes are as routinely desecrated by uneducated or careless chefs. Some of the best and worst steaks I have ever eaten were pepper steaks, or at least were advertised to be so.
The hazard of ordering a pepper steak has in my experience been so great that I now routinely ask how the pepper steak is prepared before ordering it. Personally I hate doing this. Too often the person who is asking how a restaurant prepares their foods is some pompous dandy who is simply trying to show off for his friends. If I were in a French restaurant I would not presume to ask a chef how he prepares a soufflé. If I saw Hollandaise sauce on the menu I would assume that if they can spell it correctly that they would also know how to prepare it. (I have been wrong about this on occasion but the odds are with me so far.) Not so with a pepper steak. The range of preparation is vast. I know what I like, but what is a pepper steak really supposed to be? Since I run a business called Pepper-Passion, I thought I should seek some expert advice to see if my own ideas were on target.
I called Chef Davis Nelson, the editor of Chef2Chef.net and posed the question, “If you ordered a pepper steak at a restaurant how would you expect it to be prepared?” He gave me two excellent answers, one method of preparation for a French restaurant and one for an American style steak house. I would be happy with either. So what is this?
The French or traditional style pepper steak would most often be a “Filet Mignon” cut that has been lightly coated on all sides with cracked black peppercorns. It would be cooked to order in a pan and set aside. The pan would be deglazed by flaming with brandy after which cream and green peppercorns would be added. The mix would be simmered until reduced and of the proper consistency and used to lightly cover the steak. The key ingredient here is the green peppercorns which have a unique flavor of their own, without being too hot. If you are a true fanatic you can add more cracked black peppercorns until the results are positively incendiary. YUM!
The American style pepper steak is similar, but would likely feature a New York cut. It might also forgo the sauce entirely in favor of a heavier coating of the cracked black peppercorns, often pounded whole onto the meat. Again, you can adjust the heat level but if you want “mild” you really would be better off ordering something else.
So there you have it. If I could obtain this at any restaurant I would seldom order a steak any other way, although a Cajun style blackened steak would often merit consideration.
So what do restaurants give you when your order a pepper steak? Well usually the first mistake is not applying a coating of cracked pepper onto the steak prior to grilling. God forbid if someone should actually shake ground pepper onto the meat. Anyone caught doing so should be crucified immediately. Pepper that is bought already ground has nothing left in terms of flavor that would make it useful for anything other than inducing sneezing.
The second major offence is to coat the steak from end to end with some type of “peppery” sauce. If you have prepared a proper pepper steak sauce it will be rich and flavorful and may be used sparingly. It would be silly to try and float a steak on a sea of it. Copious use of heavy sauces makes me suspicious that the chef is trying to mask a lesser cut of meat or simply does not know what he is doing. The worst case I ever encountered was when I was served what might have once been a nice cut of meat that was entirely submerged beneath a mountain of what I could only describe as “Green Glop”. It featured green bell peppers as a major ingredient and it was revolting. This mystified me for many years until I finally had an epiphany. It occurred to me that this cretin chef had obtained a recipe for pepper sauce and had substituted green bell pepper for green peppercorns. I am sure that other shortcuts or substitutions were made in order for it to be as bad as it was. To this day I can barely tolerate green pepper for any use, and I particularly grit my teeth when I see it specified for steak sauces. Yech!
I do not expect the world to change on my account, and so if you see me in a restaurant asking how they prepare their pepper steaks, please understand my history and try and suppress the impulse to throw rotten vegetables in my direction. If you are of a similar mind as I as to what God intended when gave the first cave man an idea to put peppercorns on a steak before throwing it on the fire, be sure and visit the recipes section of this site.