Peppered Steak

Three KidsI don’t recall mom’s cookware being particularly large despite the fact that I was in the best position to know. I would’ve known because, as a child, I had been sitting on the counter, watching her cook since I could sit up on my own. But my observations were uncritical. I simply enjoyed watching her prepare the food. My favorite family meal was Peppered Steak and I watched her make it several times throughout my childhood.

I remember being mesmerized as she sliced, salted and flowered the meat. Her hand movements were always so assured, so competent. She wasn’t working from a recipe book that I could tell. No. She was working from memory on a meal she knew well. I remember my inner commentary as she worked. I felt reassured of the meal’s coming tastiness as I watched her shake the salt onto the uncooked meat. I remember being oddly thrilled at the sight of the flower coating she added next, knowing that that had something to do with the delicious gravy it would eventually make. And I recall being just a little worried when it came time for her to slice the green pepper. I didn’t think I liked peppers at the time, just the steak and gravy. I remember keeping it to my self as I secretly hoped she wouldn’t put to many peppers into the pan. I also enjoyed being in her company. Her every move was in service to the meal and she moved with such peace and grace. She acted like cooking for the family was no trouble at all.

There were five of us: myself, my two older brothers, and my mom and dad, but there always seemed to be enough food at suppertime. We sat around an oval table with dad positioned at the head and mom at the foot. My oldest brother, Trey, sat to my dad’s right. My older brother, Troy, sat to dad’s left. Being the odd one out, I sat kitty-corner between mom and Troy.

Mom served the meal directly from the iron skillet placed in the center of the table. I remember how she simply shared food from her plate, portioning off food for me because I couldn’t reach across the table and help myself yet. I never even considered the size of her cookware.

Her iron skillet was simply a fact. She cooked everything in there: bacon, chicken, porkchops, occasionally french-fries. It was always sufficient to satisfy her cooking – and our eating – needs. Only in my dimmest memory do I recall her mentioning something about the pan as the family grew. She may have switched up to a larger pan as our appetites grew, but I’m no longer sure.

Amazingly, I didn’t even know iron skillets came in different sizes. I found it charming when I came across a smaller size, one just large enough to cook a single hamburger. As if, I thought, one ever had occasion to cook for only one person. Mom cooked for five until Trey graduated from high school and moved into his own apartment. And now I was cooking for my own family of five. Recently, I was amazed to come across an iron skillet more than two feet wide. I couldn’t imagine how one would heat the thing until it was explained to me that it was a campfire skillet. That must be some big campfire. A skillet of such a size would make a lot of Peppered Steak, I immediately thought.

The sufficiency of mom’s iron skillet seems odd to me now. As I look back on my own experience cooking for my own family, I now wonder how did she keep up with the three hungry boys and a husband? Everything she did in the kitchen always seemed so effortless even as our appetites grew.

As each of my children in turn developed an interest in truly eating food; as they went into growth spurts and their demand for calories really went up, my cookware seemed to shrink on me. Cooking enough food to satisfy everyone became increasingly challenging. I couldn’t understand how mom made it look so easy with her one-size-feeds all skillet.

Demand really started to go up when my children reached eight, ten, and twelve years old. I remember desperately piling peppers and onions on top of an already full skillet of meat, wondering why my cookware wasn’t big enough anymore. At peak demand I think I may have even cooked in a couple of batches. But the food still disappeared so fast, and I was worried I wasn’t feeding them enough. I felt like I didn’t have enough cooking space.

If there’s ever a meal that cries out for more cooking surface, it is peppered steak. This is a sirloin steak cut into strips that takes up a lot more room in the pan than it would when it was whole. Add to that the bell peppers, onions, and room enough for gravy, and you have food that takes up a lot of space. One might think that a recipe with so few moving parts might scale up easily, but it isn’t so easy.

As my own family grew, I struggled to keep up with demand. I couldn’t simply make it heartier with more meat, or thin it out with more veggies: good peppered steak requires a balance of ingredients. Too much of one element makes less room for another, and the quality of the dish suffers.

What follows is how I remember mom making the dish, with two minor modifications.

  • 10 oz sirloin steak, cut into strips
  • 2 bell peppers cut into strips
  • 1 large onion, halved and sliced (This is the first modification. I don’t recall mom ever adding onions.)
  • 2 tablespoons of flower
  • 6 to 12 oz milk
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Slice the sirloin into strips about ½ to ¾ inches thick. Lightly salt the meat. Coat the strips in flower. Brown the meat in olive oil on a medium-high heat. Deglaze the pan with a splash of cold water and your steel spatula. Once all of the meat has been turned, cover with the peppers and onions. Cover with a lid and lower the temperature to a medium heat and turn the meat and veggies at three-to-five-minute intervals. This is like stir frying, but in slow motion. You may need to add a little oil to keep the bottom of the pan covered; the flower and veggies can soak up quite a bit of the oil you started with.

This is pretty much as far as mom took it. She’d serve it over white rice. The flower coating, drippings from the steak, and moisture from the vegetables makes a nice and dense gravy. We’d eat it all up. The only shortcoming was that I often wished for more gravy. Therefore, my only improvement to the recipe is to extend the gravy.

Without removing anything, add a tablespoon of flower and mix into a roux. Add the milk and increase the heat to high, stirring constantly until the gravy boils. Serve over white rice.

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