I don’t think I had ever tasted French cuisine until I was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi. No, even though the Air Force is reputed to eat better than the Army, Navy and Marines, French cooking was not in the repertoire of the mess hall sergeant and his cooks at Keesler; that treat was to be experienced in the city of New Orleans, which lies 90 miles to the west of Biloxi and was our escape destination whenever we had the money and a 48 hour pass.
New Orleans in the 1960s was divine, especially after a couple of weeks cooped up on the base. Waiting to be discovered were such renowned restaurants as Antoine’s, Brennan’s and Galatoire’s, along with Dixieland Jazz, Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, Jambalaya at The Court of the Two Sisters, and Beignets at Café du Monde, which tasted particularly delicious accompanied by an espresso at four in the morning.
Steak au Poivre (with Pepper), Oysters Rockefeller and Banana’s Foster, comprised my introduction to French style cooking in New Orleans. I was used to having steak at home, cooked in the oven by Big Mike; although usually rare on the inside, it was grey on the outside, chewy and not all that interesting. Steak served with a delicious sauce was a revelation.
Several years later, I learned to prepare it myself after first following the recipe in The New York Times Cookbook, authored by Craig Claiborne. Subsequently, after many additions, deductions and consultations with other home cooks, I perfected what was then my recipe. It was a staple in our family until 1986, when I had a eureka moment.
During the summer of 1986, my wife and I took our two daughters to Quebec City for a week’s vacation. It was my fourth visit to that beautiful city and my wife’s second. Quebec City has a distinctively European atmosphere. For the girls, it was their first trip outside of the country and would serve as a foretaste of what they would later see and experience in Europe. We stayed at the Chateau Frontenac in a suite overlooking, and high above, the St. Lawrence River. After each day of sightseeing in the city, or taking side trips to Chute Montmorency, the Shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains, or the Ile d’ Orleans, we strolled the streets of the city, perused the menus in the windows and chose a restaurant for dinner.
For each of the first six nights, we selected a different restaurant in which to eat. My wife, our older daughter and I ordered varied meals in each, but our younger daughter, who was 9 at the time, ordered the same thing every single night…Steak au Poivre! That was the only French dish that she knew and clearly loved, so to her way of thinking, why experiment and wind up with something yucky?
On our last night, having pretty much exhausted the restaurants that were most appealing to us, we asked the ‘Steak au Poivre girl’ which restaurant had the best. Unhesitatingly, she proudly selected one and that’s where we went. The sauce on the Steak au Poivre was different from what I had been making for the previous 18 or so years, it had cream in it! That was my epiphany. Cream was not in Craig Claiborne’s original recipe, with which I had started and from which I had adapted mine. To my palate it was what had been missing.
This recipe for Steak au Poivre has been served to family and friends for almost 25 years and I am happy to share it with you. From beef, we move on to ‘the original white meat’ chicken at: Chicken Scarpiello; Everybody Makes it Differently!