Steak au poivre is traditionally made with filet mignon, but because the cut has little taste of its own and is also one of the most expensive cuts, I recommend using a good strip steak for this recipe, which features a cream-based sauce flavored with cognac and plenty of black pepper. I’m suggesting using two large strip steaks, halved, to serve four. But feel free to go traditional with a 4- to 6-ounce/110- to 170-gram filet mignon, cut from the tenderloin. (This recipe works great with chicken breast as well, if that’s your thing.)
This is best with fresh whole black peppercorns, toasted and then coarsely ground in a mortar. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, crack the toasted corns beneath a heavy sauté pan, then finish chopping them by hand. Of course, you can just shake pepper out of a McCormick tin—but if you do, it’s worth purchasing a fresh can.
For a little added flair, add a couple of tablespoons of brined green peppercorns to the sauce as the cream is reducing. Or, if you want to switch it up a little, add a teaspoon of Szechuan peppercorns to the black pepper.
Remove the steaks from the refrigerator and give them a nice coating of salt on all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 4 to 10 hours. (If you forget to do this, it’s not the end of the world. But do try to leave the steaks out for at least an hour before cooking them.)
Heat your oven to 200°F/93°C, then turn it off.
Put the peppercorns in a large skillet (cast iron is best) over high heat. Swirl them around to heat them. When you can smell them, after about a minute, transfer them to a mortar and grind them with the pestle until they’re coarse. (Or put them on a cutting board, crack them with a heavy sauté pan, and chop them with a knife until they’re coarse.) Press them into both sides of the steaks. (Save any pepper that doesn’t adhere to the meat to put into the sauce.)
In the same skillet, heat the oil over high heat. When it’s smoking hot, add the steaks. Press down hard to give them a good sear and to press the pepper into the meat. Turn them after 3 to 4 minutes or as you wish (depends how thick they are, the heat of your pan, how you like your steak). Add the butter and continue cooking, basting the steaks occasionally. When they’re medium-rare (125°F/52°C if you want to use an instant-read thermometer) or offer only mild resistance to an index finger pressed into the meat, transfer them to a plate and put them in the warm oven.
Add the shallots to the pan and cook them over medium-high heat till tender, a minute or so. Add any leftover pepper on the plate to the sauce. Add the cognac. If you want, you can ignite the cognac for fun (but it’s not necessary). Cook until the cognac is reduced to a few tablespoons. Add the cream and 3 or 4 thyme sprigs and reduce the sauce by half.
Remove the thyme sprigs. Serve the steaks, spooning the sauce over them. Garnish each plate with 2 fresh thyme sprigs.
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