Steak and Peppers
My grandmother was your typical Italian grandma. When you visited her she would pinch your cheeks and she would always ask you if you were hungry, usually while making you a sandwich! She was one of those cooks that never measured anything. She would always tell me that she did everything by eye. This made things very difficult when asking her to share a recipe. When she did agree to share one of her recipes, she would often leave out a key ingredient. We were never sure if this was on purpose or by mistake. Several times when she wrote out a recipe I would take it home only to find my results were not quite the same. I would return to my grandmother at some point and explain what happened and she would shrug and say she didn't understand why I had different results. In time I learned the only way to learn the actual recipe was to stand in the kitchen and watch over her shoulder as she cooked. In the end this proved to be much more educational, as it was the only way to find out there were more ingredients than she originally told you.
The day I actually learned how to make my grandma's pasta sauce and meatballs I was astounded by the things that were going into the sauce that were not on my recipe card and even things that were on the card often had no measurements. As she cooked our conversation went like this:
Me: Grandma, how much oregano did you add in there?
Her: That much (she pointed to the pot).
Me: Well, how much do you think that is?
Her: I don't know, it's that much (again pointing to the pot).
Me: Would you say a tablespoon?
Her: It's as much as you like.
Me: I like as much as you usually put in.
Her: Good, it's that much (one final point to the pot).
Recently I dug out a few of my grandma’s recipe cards. One was for basil chicken with broccoli stuffing. At first glance everything looks good, but after you've read it through you notice she doesn't include any basil in the ingredients list, but she does have a cup of whipping cream listed which is never mentioned in the instructions. Now to be fair she did write at the top of the card "if you like, sprinkle basil". If you like??? The recipe is called Basil Chicken... so it seems like a fairly important ingredient but just when, where and how much do you sprinkle? On another card she wrote out the recipe for the steak and peppers dish I am sharing with you today. In the ingredients she lists one and a half pounds of cubed beef. In the instructions she writes "cut steak into 4 inch by 3 inch". I shouldn't have to mention that... first off, if you buy cubed beef, there is no way to cut it into four inch strips; second if you buy a one and a half pound steak and you cut a strip 4 inches by 3 inches you're only getting one piece, right? These are just two examples, you'll just have to trust me: there are many more.
Cooking came instinctively to my grandma; it was in her hands (if that makes sense). Writing it down just wasn't natural to her. The process was her forte; the look of the food told her if it had cooked enough, the smell told her what she needed to add. Her experience told her how long to simmer the sauce, and when to add the meatballs. I did learn a few of my grandma’s best dishes from her, but the thing I wished I possesed was more of her cooking instinct. I admit that I do make her sauce as she did, not measuring any of the ingredients exactly, so don’t ask how much oregano goes in.
Now, if you have ever been to a street fair, a carnival, or any Italian festival you will always find sausage and peppers being sold by at least one vendor. Peppers and onions are piled high on a griddle alongside your choice of sweet or hot Italian sausages. The cooks toss the onions and peppers with super large spatulas adding herbs and spices, and using the juice from the sausages to keep everything moist then everything comes together in a big crusty roll. The flavors are so good together I can't ever pass them up. This recipe was my grandma’s version of sausage and peppers though I think steak and peppers is well known to any Italian. My guess is this was one of those meals that was relatively inexpensive to make, and by doubling or tripling the recipe you could really feed a crowd. At least feed the crowd that sat around our Sunday table.
My grandma cooked for family, she didn't really make anything super fancy. Her food could almost be described as peasant food. In fact a lot of it was peasant food, like minestrone soup, pasta fagioli, peas and egg, or her not so famous basil chicken. When it arrived at the table it was in a big bowl or piled on a large platter. There wasn't any pomp and/or circumstance. It just was what it was. I think that delicious simplicity is one of the best things about food, and especially about my grandma’s food. This dish is no different.
I have had to make some minor adjustments to her original recipe, but I think the results are pretty close to what I remember.
⅓ cup olive oil
2 large red bell peppers
1 large green bell pepper
1 medium red onion
1 medium ripe tomato
1½ lbs flank steak
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Fresh ground pepper to taste
6 Sandwich Rolls
What to do:
Remove the seeds from the peppers and slice them into strips about a half inch wide.
Next cut the onion into thin wedges and dice the tomato.
Take your flank steak and cut it with the grain into approximately 2 inch wide strips. Next cut each of these strips across the grain and at a slight angle into thin slices about ⅛ inch thick or so, and set-aside for now.
Grab a 12-inch skillet and heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, toss in the peppers, onion and tomatoes and cook them until they are tender but still a bit crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and with a slotted spoon remove the pepper mix from the pan to a large bowl and keep warm by loosely tenting with a bit of foil.
Next put the pan back over the heat and get it hot again, then toss in the steak strips and cook them about 3 to 4 minutes stirring occasionally to be sure they all cook evenly. The steak will release some liquid during the cooking and that’s ok, that will be the base for what my grandma called ”the sauce”. If your pan is small or if you are doubling the recipe cook your steak strips in batches rather than all at once.
Once the steak strips are done remove the pan from the heat and again using a slotted spoon remove them to the bowl with the peppers.
Place the pan back on the heat. You should still have enough juice in the pan to cover the bottom in a thin layer. If there is a lot of juice, allow some of the juice to cook off, then add the vinegar, salt, oregano, and pepper and stir to combine, scraping up any browned bits from the pan.
Now put the steak and peppers back in the pan along with any accumulated juices and toss them in the sauce to coat. Cook just a minute or so to make sure everything is heated through and most of the sauce is absorbed. Adjust seasoning as desired.
Just do as my grandma did and pour everything on a big plate and set it in the middle of the table.
A few tips: Have ready some good sandwich rolls, or some ciabatta, or some plain crusty bread, or maybe even a big sourdough loaf to serve with this. If you decide to serve this on a roll, consider getting thin slices of provolone cheese to lie across the top and then pop it under the broiler for a minute, just to melt the cheese. Or consider grating some pepper jack cheese on top if you like, (sorry grandma). You can also add in about ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes when cooking the peppers, onions and tomatoes for a little kick. Add a tossed salad to the table and you're set.
Extra Special - Make It Even Yummier Tip: Before removing the finished steak and peppers from the pan, grate some mozzarella cheese (about a cup or so), over the top then place a lid on the pan and reduce the heat to low. Allow the cheese to melt, then either slide everything onto a big plate or simply serve it straight from the pan. You will also find that this dish, as is usual for most Italian food tastes even better on the second day!
I would like to share with you the way I think steak and peppers are best to eat. Take a nice sourdough sandwich roll and very lightly toast the inside. Spread a little mayonnaise (you can use butter if you're not into mayo) onto the inside of the roll then fill with the steak and peppers. Top with a few slices of cheese (I like provolone) and place under the broiler for just a minute or two until the cheese is melted. Drizzle a little Sriacha on the top and fold it up slightly (that very top picture in this post... yep, that's the way)!
I am particularly fond of steak and peppers, as well as all of the other "peasant" food my grandma made. I hope you give this dish a try and leave me a comment below to let me know how it comes out.