We didn’t observe Shabbat. Well, maybe once or twice. Or perhaps I should say, not formally. Yes, we sat down for dinner as a family. Delicious food was served and we talked about our days. But we didn’t light candles. We didn’t say prayers and we didn’t break bread.
Growing up in Long Island’s suburbia, we were the type of family where the kids went to Hebrew school three days a week but we rarely ever went to services. We went to Jewish sleepaway camps and spent weekends on youth group retreats, but religion was not part of home life. Pepper steak, however, was.
It’s rare that food is served with as much ceremony as my paternal Grandmother Millicent Bloomberg’s pepper steak. In old-school style we’d start our meal with a halved grapefruit (carefully pre-sectioned until the serrated edged grapefruit spoon was invented) or slices of cantaloupe before moving onto the flank steak-and-green pepper stew. A portion would be scooped over rice (usually white) and sided with a lettuce-based salad.
Even when I was young, I wasn’t sure how faux-Chinese had ended up in my grandmother’s, and subsequently my mother’s, repertoire. I figured it was one of those recipes born out of the need to take a cut of meat and stretch the portion with the addition of vegetables and starch. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Like many “family” recipes, this pepper steak was not an invention of my wonderful kin. It came from that place that many of the greatest “secret” recipes come from: It was clipped from somewhere else. In this case, the idea was snipped from the pages of Long Island newspaper Newsday. From a 1987 article (grandma calls it an ad) devoted to the Chinese New Year. But don’t tell my cousins that.
Of course, while the recipe originated in the pages of Newsday, the version that turns up on the table in our home is twisted and different. It is also rarely the same twice. Don’t like green peppers? Grandma would substitute string beans. My mom liked to sneak broccoli into our diet by adding it to the mix. Both cooks are happy to create extra crunch and texture by straining a can of water chestnuts and mixing them in. Way before they became de rigeur, wheat berries might find their way into the rice.
Now I admit, pepper steak has never been my favorite. I prefer baked salmon or the excellent meatloaf that other relatives turned their noses at. However no dish — be it served Monday or Friday or Saturday night — was ever served up with the same excitement as the pepper steak. No entree more requested. No leftovers ever left over. A shabbat dinner with all of the pomp and none of the circumstance.
Millicent Bloomberg’s Pepper Steak
From: Millicent Bloomberg
Makes 4 servings
1 pound flank steak, frozen
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup onion, roughly sliced
2 cup green peppers, roughly sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Hot cooked rice
1) While frozen, cut steak diagonally across grain into thin slices, then cut into strips about 2 inches long. Defrost.
2) When steak has defrosted, heat oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Dry and add meat to pan. Brown, turning as needed.
3) Mix in onion, green pepper, garlic, salt, pepper and ginger. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes or until tender.
4) Stir together cornstarch, broth and soy sauce until smooth. Stir into meat mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 minute. Serve over rice.