Monday, March 28, 2011

Sausage and Peppers

This dish is probably one of the most simple to make. That's also the very thing that makes it great comfort food. This is decidedly not health food. It brings back memories of street fair and carnivals, and most of all, of home. It's not about cooking skill, it's about a simple, filling meal that makes just about anyone who has a last name that ends in a vowel feel happy.

Sausage and peppers- simple, easy, perfect.

Obviously, with a dish this simple, I'm not really going to impress anyone with a new and innovative recipe or technique. There are literally millions of great sausage and pepper recipes, and even more minor variations on it. Some cook some or most of the components separately, some all together- some insist on slicing the sausage, some keep it whole, some use tomato sauce, some don't, and every one has a different opinion on how to season it, or how much of one item or another to use. You've probably had at least one variation of it at some point, and you've probably made it- so I'm clearly not posting to teach anyone something new- rather, I'm posting this more to just share thoughts, and memories about something we all already know, and maybe point out some of the ways that a simple idea can have a bewildering array of variations.

To make Sausage and Peppers (and if you've got family from Brooklyn, you should pronounce it like "sawww-zeetch") you need three major components- Italian Sausage (sweet, hot, or even both), Sweet Peppers (green, red, etc), and onions (yellow, white, red, etc). Everything is cooked in olive oil, and is typically flavored with garlic, salt, pepper, and possibly some herbs such as parsley, basil, and/or oregano.

So already, just listing the thee main ingredients and the four or five minor ones, we've stumbled into a huge number of possible variations. Most people, I think, prefer sweet sausage- although hot sausage works here as well. It would also be a very Sicilian thing to use sweet sausage with a few hot sausages mixed in as a little surprise. After hitting the hot sausage in the Sunday gravy once as a kid, I started to get very good at telling the difference between hot and sweet sausage on sight... until I became old enough to "get" the Sicilian culinary sense of humor when it comes to spicy things- and even later I would start to seek out the hot stuff.

For the peppers and onions- there are many varieties of each. Some consider one color of peppers more authentic than the other for whatever reason, some insist on using a slightly different pepper such as the pale green cubanelle. Some insist on red onions, or yellow onions, or even sweet vidalia onions. Personally, I think the most authentic way to go is just pick whatever variety of sweet pepper and onion looks the freshest at the market this week. Usually, in most supermarkets in the US, you'll find it's probably the green or red bell peppers. If something else looks better- it's probably a stroke of luck that you got a good shipment, and you should jump on it. Same goes for the onions- although there are so many sources for onions that what looks best at the market is going to vary almost day to day, just trust your instincts and pick something that looks fresh and you'll do fine. The last post where I talked about using bell peppers, the red ones looked good- this week, the green ones won the prize.

I like to get all the flavor I can out of my sausages, so while it may be convenient to cook the sausages on a grill or a broiler while you work on the peppers and onions in a pan, that just misses opportunities to use all the flavor you can. I prefer to cook everything on one (large) pan- the oil I brown the sausage in (and all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan) becomes the oil I cook my onions and peppers in. Then I put the meat and the vegetables together to get acquainted as they finish cooking. Start off with a pan large enough for about 12 sausages. Heat the pan to medium-high heat, and coat the bottom with a liberal amount of oil. When it's hot, and the oil seems to shimmer slightly, start to lay in the sausages- if the first one doesn't start to sizzle as soon as it hits the pan, take it out, and let the pan heat up a little longer.

Start by browning your sausages in hot oil

The goal here is to put a brown sear on as much of the sausages' surface as possible. If you don't have a huge pan, you'll want to work in batches to keep the pan from getting too crowded. Either way, you'll need 3-5 minutes per side. By the time you get all sides of the sausages done, they should be cooked all the way through- or at least close to being cooked through- we'll finish them a little later so we don't really need to check  yet.
A nice dark-brown sear is the key to great sausage and peppers

This sear is the key to making everything come together. The sear adds flavor and a little snap to the sausage casing, and it leaves those dark bits stuck to the pan that will help the sausage flavor permeate the peppers and onions as well. A word to the wise- use a pan with a lid, and keep it covered unless you need to turn the sausages- they can spit and fling hot oil surprising distances! The lid will also help ensure that the sausages get cooked enough by trapping the heat like an oven. Once the sausages are done, take them out of the pan and set them aside. Leave the oil and all those tasty dark bits on the bottom of the pan- we'll use this to cook everything else.

Next, we'll deal with our onions. I'm not too particular about how they're cut, but I think they cook better in larger pieces in this case- so I take 2-3 medium onions, and give them a rough chop. After cutting the onions in half and peeling, I'll trim both ends, then cut it into chunks end to end, rather than cross-wise like you would do if you wanted thin half-moons. The larger cut is a little more forgiving, and less likely to overcook or burn if your kids decided to run amok with permanent markers as you're putting your onions on the heat.

Rough chopped onions
 If you haven't done so already, you should prepare your peppers now as well. There are many opinions on how to cut up the peppers- I like mine in strips about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. If you slice off the top of the pepper first, you can usually pull out the seed bulb without too much mess.

When you clean peppers- start at the top
You can then slice off the bottom, then cut the rest of the pepper in half to get at the inside. It should be fairly easy to trim out the white ribs on the inside, then lay each half flat and slice it into strips. You'll need to do this for about three or four large peppers. The classically trained french crowd will point out that I should shave off that thin, slightly waxy skin on the inside of the pepper. Luckily, I'm not french, and neither is this dish, so we'll skip that part. I've never found that part of the pepper unpleasant. As far as I can tell, the french do that bit of trimming just so they can make a pretty julianne, and/or brunoise cut... no we're not going there today. 

Peppers, cut in half, cleaned, then chopped into strips.
Turn the heat down a little, then put your onions in the pan you used to cook your sausages. They'll pick up some shockingly brown color quickly- don't worry, they won't burn that quickly - that's just the juices and tasty brown bits from the sausage sticking to your onions! Season with a little salt and pepper.

Onions sauteed with salt and pepper
Keep the onions moving around so they break up and separate. After a few minutes, they should start to become translucent and soft. At this  point, I'll add in a few cloves worth of minced garlic.This is the point where the audience for the old Emeril Live show will be prompted to cheer. You may do so if you like...

Add a little garlic to our onions.
Saute the garlic with the onions for about a minute- make sure that you don't burn the garlic, or you'll end up ruining everything in the pan- the onions, and the oil that has all those little bits of sausage in it. Keep the onions and garlic moving in the pan, and be ready to toss in our peppers. After the garlic gets it's chance to get to know the onions, add in our pepper strips, and season with a little more salt and pepper, and some herbs if you wish- I like to use parsley and basil here. If I'm in a more Sicilian mood, I'll sneak in a pinch or two of red pepper flakes... but not today since I'm cooking for family members that are sensitive to the hot stuff.

Adding peppers to the onions with some basil and parsley

Cook the peppers  long enough for them to be covered in oil, and they begin to change color slightly, then return the sausages to the pan. Lower the heat a little more, and cook with the lid on the pan for about 10-15 minutes or until the peppers are soft. Don't forget to stir the peppers and onions every few minutes just to make sure they cook evenly.

Let the sausages get to know the peppers and onions for a while
If you were in the mood for tomato sauce, this would be a good time to add it, then simmer for a while. I'm planning on serving my sausage and peppers on a sandwich tonight, and I personally would rather use the tomato sauced version served over pasta or rice. For a sandwich, it's ready to go as is in all it's oil coated, rich and heavy goodness.

Sausage and Peppers served in the traditional way- on a roll.
It's the kind of meal that sits like a brick in your stomach for a long time- but in a good, comforting way. This is not health food, this is food that will make you feel good, and maybe a little guilty. For me, the smells that fill the house are a big part of the experience. Anything that fills the kitchen with the scent of peppers and onions cooking in olive oil has to be a good thing. My wife found out the hard way that it's a scent that triggers some primal part of your brain and makes you feel hungry. Right on cue about a minute after I had the peppers in the pan I began to hear "how much longer before dinner)...

The best part about sausage and peppers is the leftovers. It reheats well, and a night in the refrigerator actually lets everything meld together even more than it already has. You can make another sandwich out of the leftovers, or you can get a little creative- slice up the sausage, and toss it with the peppers and onions and some pasta. The leftovers also make a great pizza topping. Ages ago, my mother would use the peppers and onions (with or without the sausage) and some leftover potato to make breakfast- peppers and eggs. She'd warm up the leftover sausage and peppers in a pan with chunks of leftover potato, then cover the whole thing with scrambled eggs. I haven't had peppers and eggs in a long time, so right now, I'm wondering if I'll have enough time to do ti before I have to leave for work in the morning.

I'm sure that just about any Italian American can understand how I feel about this simple, unassuming dish. They probably have their own opinion about how to make it, and their method will probably be very different from mine- and that's the way it should be. Those simple dishes that have countless variations are usually the recipes that we take the most personally.


  1. is that minced garlic from a jar?

  2. not that there's necessarily something wrong with that. just curious

  3. Guilty as charged- forgot to ask my wife to pick up garlic so I went with plan B. I was also being a little lazy- I didn't have the patience to slice garlic paper thin with a razor blade like in the prison scene from goodfellas...

  4. Like you said, everyone has there own way of making the sauseech. I found a new unconventional way that tastes great that you might not think of - go with sweet sausage and put in a nice squirt of Sriracha towards the end once the onions and peppers have cooked down nice. Even the kids love it!

  5. Sirracha is an interesting twist... I like a few chili flakes mixed in right at the end so you never know if you're going to get a hot mouthful or not.