I admit, I´m a big fan of pepper, in particularly black pepper. Love its smell when you grind it fresh and the bite it gives when you taste it with different dishes, like pepper steak. It is such a versatile spice that can be used both for savoury and sweet dishes with different results.
Pepper, one of the oldest spices in the world, comes from India and is believed to have been used in Indian cooking as early as 2000 BCE. Arriving in Europe through land and sea routes, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome it was used as an offering to the gods, as currency, plus even as medicine for digestion and aphrodisiac. Being a very expensive spice only the very wealthy were able to afford it. No wonder then that the first cookbook known to mankind, the Roman “Apicius” compiled probably in the 4th or 5th century AD, mentions the use of pepper in all its recipes.
Later in the Middle Ages the wealth of a man was often calculated by the amount of pepper he owned. In Europe in the beginning of the 15th century, it was Venice that controlled the pepper trade route through Alexandria. The Portuguese, managed to take control of that trade when Vasco da Gama established the direct maritime route from Europe to India. It was a great achievement, no longer needing to go through the unstable Mediterranean and the unsafe Arabia. We managed to hold on to the pepper monopoly until the 17th century when the British established the Bristish East India Company. Pepper has always been used in portuguese cuisine and is usually present at the table.
Besides its culinary and historical value, pepper is also known for its great healthy benefits. It is rich in manganese, iron, dietary fiber, just to name a few. It helps the digestive system and the outer layer of the peppercorn fights fat cells in your body, therefore helping in weight loss efforts.
This brings me to the following Portuguese recipe that I adapted from Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa. I loved the richness of the sauce that contrasts with the spiciness of the pepper along with the fruity, earthy taste of the Cognac. If you don’t have Cognac, you can use Brandy.
- 300 g/10.5 oz sirloin steak
- 4 shallots, chopped
- 100 ml/3.3 fl oz cream
- 50 g/1.7 oz unsalted butter
- 50 ml/1.7 fl oz Cognac
- salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
- extra virgin olive oil to taste
- Dry the steaks with a paper towel and cover them with a good amount of pepper to taste. Heat a skillet with a bit of olive oil, add the steaks and cook for two minutes on each side. Remove the steaks from the skillet, let them rest until there is no more blood coming out and then season with salt to taste.
- Add the butter and the chopped shallots to the skillet . Pour the cognac and flame it. Wait until the flame burns out and then add the cream and season it with salt to taste.
- Once it starts boiling, add the steaks to the skillet and cover them with the sauce. The meat is supposed to be medium rare to medium but you can cook it a couple of minutes more if you prefer 3/4 or more.
- Remove the steaks and serve them either with roasted sweet potatoes like me or accompanied by spinach and garlic sautéed in a bit of olive oil, butter and seasoned to taste. It is a very luscious and inviting meal, ideal for the colder autumn and winter days ahead.