~ Chinese-American Restaurant-Style Pepper Steak ~
A few days ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a photo of her dinner, Chinese pepper-steak, and, for a few days, just like that song that gets stuck in your head, I walked around wishing everything I ate was pepper steak. As a kid in the 1960's, it was one of the first Chinese-American restaurant dishes I was introduced to, and, as a young bride in the mid 70's, it was the first Chinese-American dish I made in my own kitchen. By the time the '80's rolled around, I had three boys in elementary school, and, pepper-steak was in our meal rotation several times a year.
#1. Chinese-American pepper-steak = thinly-sliced beef steak, bell peppers & onion tossed in a pepper & soy-sauce-based stir-fry sauce.
Pepper-steak* features very thin strips of beef steak cooked with sliced green and/or red bell pepper and onion, seasoned with garlic, ginger, pepper and soy sauce -- more pepper than traditionally used in other Chinese dishes. Bean sprouts and/or water chestnuts are common additions. The soy-sauce-based stir-fry sauce is thickened with cornstarch, and, the consistency of the finished dish, lightly-sauced to slightly-soupy, is determined by whether the pepper-steak will be served atop rice or noodles (which are, by design, there to absorb the excess sauce).
The dish originated in the Fujian Province in China where it was made with lightly-seasoned, readily-available, inexpensive pork -- in China, quality beef is a luxury for the working class. Americans began making the dish when soldiers began returning home from World War II (research reveals at least as early as 1948). Due to the public's overwhelming dissatisfaction with the wartime rationing of red meat, the transition from pork to beef was almost immediate -- red meat in the USA was considered the prime source of energy for the working man, and, its mere presence on a dinner plate with a starch and a vegetable, the definition of a proper meal.
#2. Chinese tomato-beef = thinly-sliced beef steak, fresh tomato, bell peppers & onion in a tomato & soy-sauce-based stir-fry sauce.
*Note: Any recipe for Chinese-American restaurant-style pepper-steak is effortlessly turned into Chinese-American beef with broccoli (by substituting broccoli florets for bell peppers), but neither should be confused with Chinese tomato-beef, a recipe similar to pepper-steak (containing bell peppers and onion) that includes fresh tomato and a tomato product, usually ketchup, in the stir-fry sauce mixture. Tomatoes aren't native to China, but, the Chinese fell in love with them, and, Americans embraced China's tomato-containing dishes. Tomato-beef = a signature example.
The 1972 Edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook was gifted to me at my bridal shower in 1974. The recipes can be considered basic, and relatively quick and easy, but, the most important thing to know is: the recipes work -- a big motivating factor to a young cook. Nowadays, it is my starting point for many now-retro recipes. Their recipe for pepper-steak (p. 295), with minor changes over time, remained my go-to recipe for several years. Then:
^^^ In 1987, Executive Chef Henry Haller, the chef at the White House for first families Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Regan, published The White House Family Cookbook, featuring favorite family meals and reminiscences from each of the five President's he served at the pleasure of.
One menu, from a surprise Valentine's Day party Betty Ford hosted for her POTUS husband (who had been a Naval officer stationed in the Asiatic-Pacific during World War II), included her take on Chinese-American pepper-steak (p. 207). Mrs. Ford's steak struck such a chord with public, the White House printed it on White House stationery, in order to meet the volume of requests.
In the White house, Mrs. Ford's version was prepared with 2-2 1/2-pounds beef tenderloin/filet mignon, @ $15-$20 per pound, a costly $$40.00-$50.00. That's AOK and definitely superbly-wonderful (and I'd use tenderloin in a heartbeat for a fancy-schmancy special occasion with an Asian theme), but, for my family's weeknight dinner table, @ $3.50-ish per pound, a properly-sliced $7.00-$8.00, 2-2 1/2-pound flank steak will do just fine. There's more. Mrs. Ford's recipe surprisingly did not contain any ginger, so I added it for her. She, oddly, used dry sherry, which, for authenticity sake, I substituted equal amounts Chinese rice wine and Chinese rice vinegar for. I tripled the amount of soy sauce and added the water chestnuts too. Haha. Carry on.
2-2 1/2 pounds flank steak
1 tablespoon garlic paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 teaspoons coarsely-ground peppercorn blend (120 grinds)
1/2 cup stir-fry sauce, to use as marinade, from recipe below
3/4 cup thinly-sliced scallions, white and light green parts only
2-3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 1/2 cups julienne of green bell pepper (1 large bell pepper)
1 1/2 cups julienne of red bell pepper (1 large bell pepper)
1 8-ounce can water chestnuts, well-drained (about 3/4 cup)
steamed white rice, for accompaniment
1/2 cup high-quality unsalted vegetable stock
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons firmly-packed cornstarch
~ Step 2. Place the beef strips in a 1-gallon food storage bag. Add the garlic paste, ginger paste and coarsely-ground peppercorn blend. Give the stir-fry sauce a thorough stir and add 1/2 cup of it to the bag of sliced steak. Seal the bag and squish the meat around until thoroughly coated in the sauce. Set aside to marinate*, 30-60 minutes at room temperature, or, 8-12 hours/overnight in the refrigerator.
Note: A common misconception is: to marinate is to tenderize. It doesn't work that way. In the food world, marinades for proteins act as flavorizers, not as tenderizers, meaning: the longer you marinate, the more flavor will be infused into the beef. If you are pressed for time, even 15-minutes will go a long way to flavoring the finished dish. Moral of the story: The tenderness of the protein being cooked is dependent entirely upon knowing the proper cooking method.
~Step 3. In a 12" nonstick wok, stir-fry pan or skillet, heat the oil over medium-high -- just enough to coat bottom and/or sides of pan you're using. Add the steak, along with all of its marinade and the scallions. Using a large slotted-spatula, stir-fry/sauté the beef strips until lightly-browned around their edges and a bit pink-tinged towards their centers, about 2 1/2-3 minutes maximum. Use the slotted spatula to transfer steak to a medium-large bowl, allowing all of the excess juices to drizzle back into the skillet. Do not overcook the steak.
~Step 4. Add the bell pepper strips to the beef drippings remaining in skillet. Stir-fry/sauté until crunch-tender and still brightly-colored, 1 1/2-2 minutes. Do not overcook vegetables. Error on the side of undercooking them. Using the slotted spatula, transfer the vegetables into the beef in the bowl, allowing all of the excess juices to drizzle back into the skillet.
~Step 5. Thoroughly stir and add the remaining stir-fry sauce to the juices remaining in the pan and stir constantly until the sauce is bubbling, glistening and nicely-thickened, about 30-45 seconds. Pour the luscious brown sauce over the steak and vegetable mixture and toss, like you would a salad, until steak and veggies are evenly coated.
Serve immediately over steamed white rice or cooked lo-mein.
Special Equipment List: 1-cup measuring container; cutting board; chef's knife; 1-gallon food storage bag; 12" wok, stir-fry pan or nonstick skillet; large slotted spatula
Cook's Note: In a food world full of famous Chinese dishes, chow mein and lo mein are two noodle dishes that every Chinese chef knows how to prepare, but, are hard for non-Chinese cooks to distinguish between. It's commonly thought the difference lies in the type of noodle. It doesn't. The noodles are the same -- fresh Chinese egg noodles. Translated, "mein" means "noodles", "chow mein" means "fried noodles", and, "lo mein" means "tossed noodles" -- the exact same noodles. To learn more, read my post ~ The difference between Chinese Chow Mein and Lo Mein ~.
"We are all in this food world together. ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)