"Good, beefy steak, fragrant peppercorns and red wine are a most sublime combination. Don't be tempted to think that naff restaurants that serve steak au poivre swimming in a sickly cream and brandy sauce have got it right – they haven't. This version is the classic one and the best."
I started out this post determined to just focus on variations of this classic dish, and then found, of course, that there isn't even agreement on what is classic, so it's expanded a bit. Why am I doing this? Well I have a bit of red wine left over from the date night and I had vague memories of a braised pepper steak kind of thing from Delia and thought I would make that. And I think I probably will, although I may have changed my mind by the time I get to the end of this.
Above you have the two variations of the 'classic' recipe - Delia's is on the right. So let's look at that first. Wikipedia seems to think it is usually served with a cream and brandy sauce, and maybe this is true, but I have to say that the 'classic' authorities in my little library - Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier don't think so. Neither of them have any sauce at all in fact - just a knob of flavoured butter on top - they both suggest parsley butter, Elizabeth David suggest tarragon butter as an alternative, and Robert Carrier garlic butter. But both very simple recipes, with Carrier grilling his rump steak and Elizabeth David dry frying, or frying on a griddle pan.
Which is interesting for whilst I could find plenty of pictures of plain grilled steak topped with various butters, there was not one of a pepper steak with butter. (I did subsequently find one from a site on which they tried Elizabeth David's recipe - Spicelines.) And it is certainly true that if you eat it in a restaurant you will almost always get it served with a creamy kind of sauce - indeed sometimes the pepper is in the sauce and not on the steak.
So what about the pepper? Both of my old masters, crush the peppercorns, and rub them into the steak before leaving them to rest - Elizabeth David goes so far as to suggest overnight, with a minimum of one hour, whilst Carrier goes for a minimum of half an hour. Not straight into the pan or on to the grill though. How much pepper? Well not too much. Carrier goes for just black peppercorns, Elizabeth David says half a teaspoon each of black and white for each steak and adds:
"The quantity of pepper suggested in this recipe is ample for most people, but can be increased or decreased according to taste. French restaurant cooks tend to overdo the pepper on steak au poivre to the point where their victims choke on the very first mouthful."
She also rubs the steaks with garlic and oil, before coating them in the peppercorns whilst Carrier doesn't - just peppercorns for him. They are both very simple recipes.
Interestingly Nigel Slater is sort of in agreement:
"Good though this dish is, I find the crunch of the virtually whole spices a bit too much and often throw in some unorthodox soft green peppercorns, too. An act that would be sacrilege, if it wasn't so darned good. These mellow the whole dish and avoid the gravel effect of a mouthful of dried spices."
Mind you elsewhere in the same article he says:
"You would think, wouldn't you, that the finer you crush a spice the more flavour you would get out of it. Yet do this simple test. Crush a palmful of your plumpest black peppercorns in a pepper mill, then crack another little batch lightly but firmly with a pestle, or other heavy object. Now inhale. No contest, is there? The roughly crushed spice is more heady and has much deeper, more interesting things going on than the fine powder. And while the finely ground stuff is invaluable for balancing the seasoning of your supper - fine tuning, if you like - the roughly cracked pepper seems to have more depth to it and will add a textural contrast, too."
And here we come to the variations - for many of the variations really just use different peppercorns and different liquids in the sauce. The most beautiful example is Donna Hay's Char-grilled sirloin steak with pink peppercorn and whisky sauce, shown at left with its Crispy potato and Gruyère dominoes to accompany it. Then the River Cottage people, in the person of Steve Lamb have a Szechuan-spiced venison steak, which can also be made with beef. No sauce with this one - the approach is the same as the classic versions I talked about above, but the pepper is different - the meat too - indeed Szechuan pepper is not really a pepper at all. You can watch a video on YouTube - but to be honest it's really almost not worth watching, as there is nothing to it. The coating is 3 teaspoons of the Szechaun pepper, i tsp flaky sea salt and 2 tsp of chopped thyme. No sauce or butter here. It's just cooked in oil, sliced and served with the pan juices poured over it. I'm not knocking it, just saying there is nothing to it!
You can also, of course, do a roast beef that is coated in peppercorns.
And finally - not really the same thing at all, and returning to Nigel Slater, he has a recipe for Roast chicken wings with lemon and black pepper. He also has another version which adds maple syrup to the mix - so a variation of a variation. But it does look yummy and lots of people on the net seem to have had a go and all declare it a winner.
I do like pepper steak, and I guess I could just make a pepper steak with a red wine sauce, but I think I'll go for the braised version this time. And I don't like those versions that just add the peppercorns to the sauce. They have to be pressed into the steak, though I have never tried leaving them to 'marinade' in them before. Must try that some time.