Before she inexplicably gave up all interest in cooking maybe 15 years ago, my mother was a wonderful and creative cook, who made delicious food of a kind which did not commonly appear in the households of my friends. She read a lot of cookbooks, and was a big Craig Claibourne fan. But sometimes she just made stuff up-based on flavors that she had experienced in restaurants-especially Chinese restaurants, which we all loved. In those days, Chinese restaurant food in a provincial city like Pittsburgh was pretty much all Cantonese-American.
I have had quite a few asian beef and pepper dishes in restaurants and people's homes since then. Mum's "Chinese" Pepper steak was her own invention, and not, probably, especially close to any actual Chinese dish. It was, however, wonderful comfort food, and like most things with lots of peppers, smelled insanely good in the cooking. We ate it with fluffy white rice (as opposed to the medium grained, stickier Asian rice). Thus, it was fork, and not chopstick fare. Green peppers were widely available then, while red, orange and yellow peppers rarely appeared in a supermarket. So her pepper steak was made with all green peppers-but there was a secret step.
She parboiled the sliced peppers, before adding them to her sauce, and this made for a very delicate flavor. I tried to mentally reconstruct the recipe as she made it, while simultaneously deciding if I should vary it when I made it myself, because of the additional ingredients and tools which are available to me now. There was no doubt in my mind that Mum would have used some of these things if they were available to her. Still, her pepper steak was a thing of simple beauty as it was, so I didn't want to stray far from the original.
In the end, the conscious changes I made were these: I made it in my wok, beause it was easy and I make lots of stuff in it as a matter of course. I used a variety of peppers and fresh ginger, instead of only green peppers and dried ginger, because I could, and who wouldn't? I drizzled it with toasted sesame oil, because I love it so, and could not resist. I also had a heated internal debate about a few fermented black beans, and left them out, but I may not, next time. So it remains a simple dish which can be made from ordinary supermarket food. It is something I can eat often, without tiring of its simple goodness. and pretty much all non-vegetarians like it.
If you are interested, this is what you need to serve 4:
3/4 lb thinly sliced beef, suitable for sauteeing -although tougher cuts, frozen and sliced very thin work, too-they are tenderized somewhat- just a bit chewier, which can be nice.
an onion, peeled and thinly sliced in half-moons
a clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/2" square of peeled fresh ginger, chopped
peanut oil 2 tbsps
3 sliced sweet peppers, assorted colors, briefly parboiled and drained
soy sauce-to taste, be generous. Before soy sauce was widely available, Mum used Worchestershire sauce, but she swtiched later
beef broth, preferably homemade- 2 cups
14 oz can chopped tomatoes-preferably Muir Glen, or homemade, drained
1 tbsp cornstarch, disoled in 1/4 cup cold water
drizzle toasted sesame oil
2 scallions, sliced
In a wok, or large saute pan, heat the oil. Add beef, onion, garlic and ginger, and stir fry just until almost all the beef has changed color. Add the broth, tomatoes, soy sauce and peppers, and simmer until the beef is tender- maybe 20 minutes. Add cornstarch mix, stirring or whisking to keep things smooth, and cook until sauce is thickened. Drizzle with sesame oil and garnish with chopped scallions. There is a lot of sauce, and it is very good over basmati rice. So make plenty of rice. I have been known to make a lunch of leftover sauce on rice.
If my mother was making this for supper, I could smell it as soon as I came home from school, and opened the door. I had a hard time waiting until dinner. Sorry there is not photo- the camera batteries gave up the ghost, and we could not wait for a re-charge to eat. It's not all that pretty anyway; iti somehow looks its best when you can smell it, as well as see it.