Because the holidays are both festive and traditional, this week's column includes a menu that is equal to the celebration.

Since steak is seen so rarely these days, its mere presence on the dinner plate inspires a festive mood.As the holidays call for an extra-special celebration, steak au poivre calls for an extra-special piece of beef -- the tenderest, finest meat that the cook can afford.

Actually, a meal with so few ingredients requires the best among them. Extremely tender beef, whole peppercorns, good brandy, real butter and heavy cream. If the cook wants to cut corners on expense, it's better to allow smaller portions of the finest meat than larger of lower quality.

Brandy should be added to a slightly cooled skillet. Otherwise, it will boil away the minute it touches the metal, and there will be nothing to flambe'. So remove the pan from direct heat before pouring in the brandy.

The steak recipe below yields a rare dinner. Obviously, the cook should consider not only cooking time, but temperature and thickness of the meat as well. The steak should cook a minute or two longer for medium or medium-well, depending on the diners' tastes. If they prefer well-done meat, serve meat loaf instead.

Quality ingredients and the flicker of a gentle fire make this an especially festive dish, most appropriate for an intimate dinner for two. But steak au poivre fills a traditional role, too, as its presentation is steeped in ritual.

Tradition holds that the diner take a bite of his meat, a bite of fresh watercress and a swig of good, sturdy red wine like a zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon. (Beaujolais would be lost in this meal.) If the watercress in the market looks as bad this week as it did last, opt for fresh broccoli florets steamed in chicken broth. And accompany the broccoli with small browned potatoes sprinkled with fresh parsley.

It is hoped that the cook considers the holiday meal worth the extra stop at the liquor store for brandy and suitable wine. Otherwise, the meal can be purchased through the express lane of the supermarket. As always, it is assumed the cook has flour, sugar, butter, oil, salt and pepper. Make certain, in this case, that the pepper is in the whole -- not ground -- state.

EXPRESS LANE LIST: steak, shallots, heavy cream, potatoes, parsley, broccoli and chicken broth. A stop at the liquor store for brandy and red wine.

STEAK AU POIVRE (2 servings) 2 tender steaks (ribeye, strip or fillet) 1 1/2 tablespoons whole peppercorns 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon oil 1 shallot 1/4 cup brandy 1/2 cup heavy cream

Remove steaks from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature. With the flat bottom of a skillet, press firmly on peppercorns to crush them roughly. Do this gently and firmly, a few at a time. If you come down on the peppercorns too hard or too many at a time, they tend to fly out from under the skillet. Dredge both sides of the steaks in the peppercorns, pressing them firmly into the surface of the meat, and set aside. Melt the butter with the oil in a skillet. Chop shallot and add to the pan. Stir over medium-high heat a few minutes, then add steak. Cook 3 to 5 minutes on each side, turning only once. Take pan off heat. Remove steaks to a warm plate. Pour off almost all the fat from pan and add brandy to slightly cooled skillet. With the pan off the heat, stir to remove any bits that cling to the bottom of the pan. Ignite. When the flame dies down, add cream and place skillet over high heat to reduce the cream to a thick sauce. Pour over warm steaks and serve at once.

BROWNED POTATOES (2 servings) 6 potatoes, each about the size of a golf ball 2 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley Salt

Boil the potatoes about 20 minutes or until easily pierced with a fork. Remove from water and cool. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove skins. Melt butter in small skillet. Stir potatoes over medium-high heat so that they brown all over. Add parsley and a little salt, and stir to coat potatoes with parsley.