Jan 14, 2009

Mom's Pepper Steak: Chinese, Cajun, Creole...What?

Pepper Steak is a bit of a mystery to me.

My mom made this often when I was a child. I, along with my brothers, were puzzled by the beefy “red gravy” served over rice or (more often) pasta. To us, red gravy was for meatballs. Those of you who know me, know that we recently moved “back home.” A few months ago, my brother and I were talking about what we always end up talking about: food. The food we were currently eating and “how ya make dat?” and foods we ate as kids. He commented about how weird he always thought it was eating red gravy with strips of beef over spaghetti. That got me thinking. I thought it was weird at one time, but no longer. That also got me thinking that I should give this dish another try. Surely my taste buds had evolved since the age of 10?

So, I took a look at how my mom does it. I also scoured all my cookbooks to see what variations I could find. Of course, I Googled too. That led to another puzzle. My Googling pulled up Steak Au Poivre. I’m very familiar with steak au poivre, also called pepper steak, and knew that it was nothing like what my mom made. I also came across many recipes for “Chinese” Pepper Steak. This had similarities...strips of beef, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes. My mom used all of those things. But Chinese Pepper Steak also had soy sauce and, in many of the recipes I saw, ginger. Definitely a difference.

Then I came across recipes for “Cajun” Pepper Steak. That was the biggest puzzle of all. Why “Cajun?” What was Cajun about it? It isn’t particularly Cajun to me. If I’m going to give it an adjective based on Louisiana cuisine, I’d say this dish is more Creole than Cajun. (Note to self: it would be a good idea to blog about the difference).

The idea of adding “Cajun” to a recipe title just because something has Cajun seasoning in it or is spicy is just so wrong to me. A bastardization of the cuisine. I dug a little further, reading recipe after recipe. Some “Cajun” Pepper Steak recipes did list Cajun seasoning in the ingredients. Is that what made it Cajun to the author? I hope not. Others were simply what I’d call “rice and gravy,” definitely Cajun cooking, but a non-tomato dish, and nothing like what mom calls “Pepper Steak.”

I’m still puzzled about the origins of this dish. And, after studying many recipes, I find myself even more puzzled as to why some refer to it as “Cajun.” If anyone can clear this up, I’d appreciate the information.

Mom’s Pepper Steak
from Ms. enPlace

1 1/2 lbs boneless round steak, cut into pieces
2 T vegetable oil
1 (14.5 oz) can beef broth (reduced sodium)
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp Cajun seasoning, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 T cornstarch
1-2 T cold water
Hot cooked noodles/pasta or rice

Heat oil in a large skillet (don’t use non-stick). Brown beef, allowing the liquid to cook off and the meat to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add a small amount of water and scrape the browned bits off the pan. Allow meat to stick again, add water, and scrape. Add the bell pepper, onion, garlic and sauté with beef until vegetables are softened (can cover with lid to speed up). Add broth, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce and seasonings. Let it come to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer for at least an hour or until meat is tender. Discard bay leaf.

Combine 1 T cornstarch and 1T water until smooth; stir into meat mixture. Let it come to a boil. If gravy is not thick enough, repeat cornstarch mixture. Cook and stir for 2 mins. or until thickened. Serve over noodles/pasta or rice. About 6 servings.
Get ready.

Brown the beef, which you can either cube or cut in strips. At first, the liquid will have to boil off.

Yeah, you right! Look at that crust on the bottom. That's good stuff right there.

Add water to start building your gravy. Scrape the crust off the pan. Repeat crust forming process.

The beef will probably be tough at this point. Don't worry. Simmering will make it tender.

Add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic. I like to chop the vegetables if I cube the beef or slice them into strips if I do the same with the beef. I like to keep things as consistent as possible.

Add liquids and seasonings. Simmer.

Start cooking rice or pasta 'cause it's almost eatin' time! I always preferred pasta with this dish. If the gravy is too thin (and if you're using pasta it probably will be), mix cornstarch and cold water together. Add to gravy, bring to a boil. Still not thick enough for you? Repeat cornstarch mixture.

I'm about to hurt myself!
Served over pasta w/ Favorite String Beans.

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