pepper steak grows up

Until a few months ago, my opinion of pepper steak was not clearly defined. My overall view was neutral, leaning positive, but within the margin of error [sorry, I've been reading a lot of polling summaries lately]. We ate pepper steak fairly regularly as I was growing up. It was not only a frequent choice for take-out, but my dad crafted a really fresh and satisfying homemade version. When we had it, I enjoyed it — I liked the pieces of crunchy green peppers and I have a soft spot for big squares of sweet onion–, but to me it was just another item in semi-regular rotation on our weeknight dinner circuit. It was better than chicken soup, but not nearly as sought after as fajitas, for example.

Recently, I have started mapping my own weeknight dinner circuit. As a starting point, I thought about some of the stand out meals from my childhood. Pepper steak didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t reject it as something to try, I just sort of forgot about it. I was reminded of pepper steak this June when it was featured on Serious Eats. I got a pang of nostalgia when I saw the recipe and I instantly bookmarked it. I liked the notion of folding one of my forgotten childhood regulars into my adult life, even if it wasn’t my absolute favorite as a kid. I’m realizing how tough it is to make homemade dinners nearly every night, so I’m more interested in dinners being consistently “good” rather than consistently “rockstar.” This pepper steak seemed to fit the bill: straightforward instructions, some veggies, and not too time consuming.

grinding a bunch of peppercorns for the sauce = secret to success

Turns out, the recipe is completely awesome — no toss-up, undecided, margin of anything. The main difference between the pepper steak I once knew and this pepper steak is the tablespoon of freshly cracked black pepper in the sauce. Maybe everyone else has always had this spicy seasoned version, but it’s new to me and I’m a convert. The recipe has my favorite parts of my dad’s pepper steak (fun squares of pepper and onion, thin slices of marinated sirloin, soy sauce-based slurry) with a lot more spice. There’s a ton of nicely thickened sauce, too, that slicks every bite and gives meaning to plain white rice (and I love it when extra sauce hides in the scoops of pepper pieces). I’ve made this a handful of times since June and I plan on making it many times for many years to come.

chinese pepper steak
adapted from Serious Eats. Serves about 4. Serve with rice (if you have trouble getting rice right, try this technique.)

You definitely don’t need a wok for this recipe; a large nonstick pan works very well. As for beef choice, I always use sirloin because that’s what my dad uses and it’s what I like best, but if you’re partial to flank or skirt, you could use those cuts. To make the sauce, the Serious Eats recipe calls for a 1/3-cup of chicken stock, but I use a 1/3-cup of water plus a tablespoon of soy sauce instead. I do the swap because (1) I rarely have that amount of stock on hand and it’s annoying to buy a box or can and only use a 1/3-cup and (2) my dad thinks, and I agree, that it’s kind of odd to use chicken stock in a beef dish, so we substitute water. I add the tablespoon of soy sauce to make sure the flavors aren’t diluted.

Ingredients

1 pound sirloin steak cut into 1/4-inch strips (or flank steak, skirt steak, or hanger steak)
1/4 cup and 3 tablespoons soy sauce (divided)
1/3 cup and 2 tablespoons xiaoshing wine or dry sherry (divided)
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly, coarsely ground black pepper
3 green bell peppers, cored and cut into 1-inch squares (about 3 cups)
1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced (about 2 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
4 tablespoons vegetable, peanut, or canola oil

Instructions

  • Marinade beef: combine beef, 2 tbsps soy sauce, and 2 tbsps xiaoshing wine in a bowl and toss to coat. Let marinate for at least 20 minutes at room temperature.
  • Make slurry (sauce): combine 1/4-cup soy sauce with corn starch and stir with a fork to form a slurry. Add 1/3-cup xiaoshing wine, 1/3-cup water and 1 tbsp soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and pepper. Stir well and set aside.
  • Get items ready: combine raw peppers and onions in a bowl and set aside. Combine garlic and ginger in a little bowl and set aside.
  • Stir fry: heat 1 tbsp oil in a wok over high heat. Add beef to pan until pan is about 3/4ths full (avoid crowding meat or it won’t brown) and cook without moving until well seared, about 1 minute. Flip meat, stirring and tossing for about 1 minute more (will still be pink in spots). Remove meat from pan and place in a large bowl. Add 1 more tbsp of oil and remaining meat to pan and cook in the same fashion, adding meat to same bowl when cooked. (Repeat if you still have more meat to cook). Wipe out pan. Add 1 more tbsp oil and half of peppers and onions; toss and cook for a minute. Transfer to bowl with meat. Add another tbsp oil and cook remaining onions and peppers in the same fashion. Return the pepper-onion-beef mixture to pan and add the garlic and ginger. Toss and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the slurry/sauce and cook, tossing and stirring until the sauce thickens slightly, about a minute. Serve immediately with rice.
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2 thoughts on “pepper steak grows up

  1. looks good, lars! i may have to give this a whirl. i have been pondering standards for my dinner rotation as well. i think i spend too much time trying out fancy-ish new recipes, when really i should try perfecting a few classic go-to’s for weeknights.

  2. Thanks, Tay. And yeah, I find myself more excited these days by a yummy weeknight recipe than an awe-inspiring fancy pants recipe.

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