Pepper steak, as the name implies, is not a vegetarian dish, owing to the big slices of juicy steak. However, the vegetables in this dish are just as important as the beef. Ha ha, no, it’s the meat. All right, fine, let’s compromise and say this: The vegetables are what make the meat so good.
Perhaps this article about a meat-based dish is as good an occasion as any to discuss vegetarianism. I believe in vegetarianism’s aims but can’t quite manage its methods. That is, where there should be no meat, e.g., in my mouth, that’s where there’s meat.
About five years ago, after watching the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” our family decided to give vegetarianism a try. The attempt lasted a scant two weeks and left me with a deep craving for protein and an abiding love for roasted parsnips. (Seriously, parsnips are delicious.) We did make a significant and long-lasting change as a result of our experiment, however: We now eat far less meat, generally. Beef is a twice-monthly affair for our family, though I admit our burger consumption does rise in the summer. My point is, if I’m going to indulge in beef, it had better be good.
Pepper steak is one of those dishes that make the cut. Our family had this quite often when I was in high school and I loved it. It was definitely a second-helping kind of meal, heaped over a bed of fluffy rice. Later, in my 20s, when my husband-to-be was wooing me – a shockingly short process, since I was already madly in love with him – he invited me to dinner at his apartment, a two-room walk-up over a garage, furnished with a shabby couch, a TV on the floor and a rickety dinette set. He served me stir-fried steak and bell peppers over rice. I took a bite and thought, “I’m home.” It wasn’t the same as Mom’s, but I deemed it good enough to eat for the rest of my life. (Let’s not discuss how many times he’s actually made it in the ensuing 26 years. Hint: less than one and not more than zero. His adorable British accent makes up for it.)
The fact is, I’ve never been able to successfully recreate Mom’s delectable pepper steak. I can’t manage to get the sauce right or make the steak any more tender than the supplest shoe leather. However, thanks to my dad and his recent discovery of Mom’s treasure-trove of recipes, I now hold the instructions for pepper steak in my hot little hands. It’s on a recipe card that originated from company called My Great Recipes, a subscription service whereby home cooks would receive new recipes each month in the mail. The company still exists, though of course it’s now a website, www.mygreatrecipes.com. There’s a companion website, www.mygreatrecipescollection.com, where you can find collections of these recipes dating back to the ’50s. Mom’s pepper steak seems to be from the 1981 collection, although I wasn’t able to find the exact recipe online. At any rate, searching for old recipes on these sites is an easy way to spend an afternoon, but let’s get back to the steak.
Take 1 pound of flank steak or top round steak with the fat trimmed off. Slice it across the grain into thin strips, not too large but bigger than bite-size morsels. You want to see the meat in this dish. Toss it into a bowl with 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 clove garlic (I put 3 cloves, to more effectively achieve my desired level of garlic breath), and 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger; I recommend fresh ginger, if you have it, because makes for a much zingier flavor. Let the steak marinate while you prepare the veggies, though you could also let it marinate for several hours or overnight for extra tastiness.
Chop enough scallions to fill 1 cup. Cut 2 tomatoes into wedges. Slice 1 green pepper and 1 red pepper into small strips or chunks, whatever pleases you. Then slice 2 stalks celery on the diagonal. (I reduced the celery to 1 stalk because some people in my family don’t like celery, meaning everyone except me.)
Put 1/4 cup vegetable oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Toss the meat around in the oil until it’s browned and taste it to see if it’s tender; if it’s not, the recipe card recommends simmering the beef, covered, for another half an hour.
When the meat is tender, turn up the heat and add the peppers, scallions and celery, cooking until they’re tender-crisp but definitely not soft. Mix 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1/2 cup water, then add to the pan and cook until the sauce thickens. Add the tomato wedges and cook until just warmed through. Add more salt or soy sauce to your preference and serve heaped over rice. Pro tip: It tastes even better when eaten on a rickety dinette set with a skinny young Englishman.