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Jul 3, 2012
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Wine With...Steak au Poivre

By Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

There are many excellent reasons to splurge every once in awhile on a great meal and a really good bottle of wine. Celebration, commemoration, seduction—it isn’t hard to come up with the perfect pretext to lay out a little extra cash for a terrific piece of meat and a special wine with which to pamper yourself and a your guest(s). For this kind of evening your goal is to serve something with a little flash and a lot of flavor, but you don’t want to spoil your festive mood by having to spend all day in the kitchen preparing the extravaganza. Enter steak au poivre, an exemplary dish from the French repertoire that delivers plenty of flair for a minimum amount of time spent in the kitchen.

The steak is cooked in a flash and it is so fabulously rich and succulent that you don’t really need to bother with a first course or anything more than a wonderful salad and loaf of good bread. If you really want something else to accompany the steak, parboil a handful of new potatoes; while the steak is cooking put the potatoes in a skillet with a generous dose of olive oil and sprinkling of salt and cook them over medium-high heat. Smash them every now and then with a fork, potato masher, or even the bottom of a sturdy mug, and cook until they are sizzling hot and just starting to turn golden.

Steak au Poivre
Serves 4

4 filet mignon steaks, about 1-1 ½ inches thick *
About 1 ½ tablespoons mixed or black peppercorns **
Salt (preferably fleur de sel or other coarse salt)
1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil such as canola
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup Cognac or other brandy
½ cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400°. Thirty or sixty minutes before cooking them, sprinkle both sides of the steaks with the peppercorns and salt, pressing slat and pepper gently into the meat with your hands (if time is a factor, you can do this just before cooking the steaks). When ready to cook the steaks, heat the oil in a very heavy skillet such as a cast iron pan. As soon as the oil starts to smoke, add the butter, and when it foams add the steaks. For rare steaks cook them two to three minutes (a minute or two longer for medium), then flip them and cook the other side for another couple of minutes, adjusting the heat to make sure they don’t burn. Transfer the steaks to a shallow roasting pan and place them in the oven to finish cooking.

Meanwhile, pour off all the fat in the pan but do not discard any bits of meat that may be stuck on the bottom. Pour in the brandy and cook, stirring constantly, over high heat, until it has reduced by about half. Add the cream and continue cooking and stirring for a minute or two, until it has thickened somewhat and is lightly colored. Add salt to taste. If you’ve used Cognac or good quality brandy you might want to drizzle in an extra spoonful at this point. Arrange the steaks on plates and drizzle each one with sauce.

* For two servings use only two steaks and reduce the amount of pepper by half, but don’t cut back on the amount of brandy or cream. Other cuts of beef—rib eye or strip steak for example--will work just fine, but this is one recipe where filet mignon really is worth the extra money.

** The thought of all that pepper may be alarming to the uninitiated but don’t worry; it mellows remarkably as it cooks. We like to use a mix of different kinds of pepper—most recently, for example, we blended together black, white and Szechuan peppercorns—but the dish won’t suffer a bit if you use just standard black peppercorns. What does make a difference is that the pepper must be coarsely ground. If you don’t have the appropriate setting on your pepper grinder, crush them with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Alternatively you can simply put the peppercorns in the folds of a dish towel and whack them soundly with a wooden mallet or other heavy object.

* * *

We tried twelve different red wines with this dish, all priced between $30 and $60 in keeping with the idea that steak au poivre makes for a “splurge” dinner. None proved disappointing, but only about half were truly exciting. A delicious Pinot Noir, for example, turned thin with the meal, and a red Bordeaux from St-Emilion seemed overly hard and tannic. The biggest problem with some of the wines we tried, though, wasn’t weight or body so much as sweetness. The cream and cognac sauce is itself rich and sweet, and wines that shared that profile seemed almost redundant at the table. The best wines, while certainly full-bodied, stood proudly on their own, daring the steak to come up to their level. It did, and the results were delicious.

Selection

Approx. Price

Comments

Tenuta Luce della Vite, Tuscany (Italy) “Lucente” 2008

Imported by Folio Wine Partners

$30

With characteristically dusty Tuscan spice in the finish, this wine is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Sangiovese. Its distinctive character not only meshed well with the steak and sauce but also added new elements to the match,

Nickel & Nickel,

Russian River Valley (California) Syrah 2009

$50

A powerful wine, but showing excellent balance, this Syrah offers plenty of ripe juicy fruit flavor augmented by subtle notes of cedar and savory spice. It might be too forceful for many dishes, but was great with this one..

Maison Nicolas-Perrin, Saint-Joseph Rhône Valley (France) 2009

Imported by Vineyard Brands.

$34

The peppery undertone in this wine matched well with the steak, and the dark fruit flavors were sumptuous. It improved notably with time in glass, so we would advise decanting it before serving.

Penfolds,

South Australia (Australia) Cabernet/ Shiraz “Bin 389” 2008

(Imported by FEW Imports)

$36

A consistent winner year after year, “Bin 389” from Penfolds walks the tight wire between its two components -- flashy, fleshy Aussie Shiraz and more refined, nuanced Cabernet. In this, it is not at all unlike steak au poivre, which tastes simultaneously decadently rich and elegantly sophisticated.

William Hill,

Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Estate” 2008

$35

An attractive Napa Caberent, with ripe but not overtly sweet fruit held in check by firm tannins and a streak of refreshing acidity. There’s nothing at all ponderous about it, which is why it meshed so well with the dish. In fact, it outperformed a couple of pricier California Cabs, both of which were bigger and sweeter, and ultimately disappointing.