This column originally ran on February 16, 2013. However, I've been laid up with strep throat for the past few days, so I'm resurrecting it, both because I haven't been able to cook at all this week, and also because this is what I will cook and eat as soon as I am able to swallow things again.
This is the worst time of year.
The assorted year-end holidays are long gone, taking with them the holiday cheer, the frequent long weekends, the bizarre seasonal candies. Martin Luther King Jr. Day came and went; the Super Bowl happened; even friggin' Valentine's Day—which, if nothing else, gives you cover for purchasing a crappy heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates for yourself without catching any brow-crinkled pity smiles from the cashier at your local drugstore—has passed. President's Day is bittersweet at best, the last faltering campfire in the howling, wind-whipped void of winter. Unless you live south of the 35th parallel, in what geographers refer to as the Irrelevant Zone, you're basically housebound these days, save for the times you dress yourself like an astronaut and scurry to the grocery store to replenish your supply of miserable, hateful, fascist, boneless skinless chicken breasts.
It's easy to go stir crazy in these circumstances: trapped inside, eating bad food, making out with the ghost in Room 237. And if, after a while, the notion of a good ax rampage starts to seem like a welcome change of pace, you could hardly be blamed for entertaining the thought. Don't give in! Make sausage and peppers instead, and cure your late-winter doldrums.
Here's a dish that tends not to get much recognition as a comfort food—not like, say, chicken soup or chili or meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs—and that's a bit of a puzzle. What the popular comfort foods have in common is that they're fairly easy to make, they're calorically dense, they're richly flavorful, and there are a billion different ways to make them because everybody's grandmother does it differently. Well, sausage and peppers is no different—plus, done well (which is to say, done at all, because it virtually cannot be screwed up), it's at least as tasty and pleasing as any of those.
I guess it's possible that the somewhat lesser reputation of sausage and peppers as a comfort food has to do with all those softened, cooked peppers and onions turning off many little kids and/or nominal adults who are actually fussy weenie toddlers in disguise. Thankfully, that's not going to be a problem today, since we are all courageous grownups who like things that are good and are not afraid of food, right?
[stares daggers at computer screen]
[wills daggers through internet, into future, toward you]
Right! So. Make sausage and peppers. This preparation is mildly different from many others, because there are many mildly diverse preparations for sausage and peppers. It includes the addition of a quick, simple tomato sauce, just to add some pleasing tartness and to put a tasty liquid other than rendered pork fat on your plate at the end. (Don't worry, there will be rendered pork fat on there, too, because how else are you going to consume rendered pork fat without anyone giving you any dirty looks.) We'll start in a pan and finish in the oven; it'll take a little while, but there won't be a ton of work involved. Set down the ax and let's get started.
The first things to do are: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and then get a simple tomato sauce cooking. For the sauce, dump a can of whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them, but regular old plum tomatoes will do), a wee little six-ounce can of tomato paste, a hearty pinch of salt, and, oh, two glasses or so worth of cheap red wine into a small saucepot over low-medium heat on your stovetop.
(Wait—do you hear that sound? Echoing across the hills and valleys and plains? The dread battle cry of the anti-canned-tomato zealots rings out: Mewwwwwwwwww! They want you to buy mealy, flavorless, unevenly ripened fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter. Laugh at them—laugh, I tell you!—for they are stupid, and their battle cry sucks. Unless you are reading this from the friggin' Valle Del Sarno in Italy, canned tomatoes will taste roughly 900 bazillion times better than anything you can spend twice as much money purchasing from your supermarket's fresh produce section in the middle of fucking February. Walk over to your nearest window and peer out. Can't you see the naked trees, shaking their dead arms at the blind white sky? Can't you see the thick fog of condensation that forms instantly when your breath touches the cold glass of your window? Can't you see a small psychic boy running into the hedge maze? Does that look like good tomato-growing weather to you? Be smart. Buy canned tomatoes.)
Typically you would start a tomato sauce by frying some onions and garlic, but you're going to skip that step this time, since you're going to cook some onions and garlic later on down the line and they'll have more than enough time to flavor this sauce. So, for now, just dump some tomatoes, tomato paste, salt, and cheap red wine into your pot. Beat the tomatoes up a bit with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, to puncture them and give them a nice head start on breaking down into a sauce. Oh, and also, add a very modest pinch of sugar to the pot, since you're not going to give the sauce enough simmering time to fully sweeten on its own, and you don't want it to be overpoweringly tart in the end. One tiny little pinch, and no more. If this sauce comes out tasting like a goddamn tomato lollipop, that's going to be awful.
Once the sauce is heated up and happily burbling away, you can turn the heat way down under it and ignore it for a bit, maybe coming back to give it a stir every now and then. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil to a big saucier pan or deep skillet over medium heat, and brown a couple of pounds of Italian sausage in there. (Note: With a fork, poke some holes in the sausages before you put them in the pan, to allow them to drain as they cook. They'll release more wonderful fat—which you will be using—this way, and they'll do it less violently.) You can choose which way you want to go, here, but I strongly, stridently, strenuously, sobbingly (unrelated) recommend that at least one of those pounds of sausage be of the hot variety. There's nothing wrong with sweet Italian sausage, but the hot sausage stands up so well to the other flavors to which you'll be matching it, and there's something wonderfully bright and warm and vivifying about its mild, inoffensive heat on a cold and dismal winter day.
(Another note: If your biggest pan isn't large enough to accommodate two pounds of sausages at once, it's perfectly OK to work in batches. You don't have to worry about that first batch cooling down while the others cook, since you're going to sock everything in a hot oven toward the end.)
(Another another note: If you happen to be the sort of hale and hearty dumb person who enjoys grilling outdoors in the grim middle of goddamn winter—or you have the good fortune to possess an indoor griddle, you sonofabitch—and you want to grill your sausages instead, that's fine. You won't get any liquefied sausage fat to use to cook other things, but, truth be told, your sausages will taste better. You won't know that, of course, because you will be frozen solid and deader than the moon, but your loved ones will, and they'll also know that I didn't say you had to do it that way, which will get me off the hook entirely, which is all that matters.)
It'll take the sausages a while to brown on each side; while they're doing that, take this opportunity to chop things. Specifically, peppers and onion and mushrooms and garlic, and possibly that meddling Scatman Crothers. Alternate chopping with looking in on your sausages to ensure they're not burning and turn them as needed. Chop some bell peppers into strips—you'll want at least three big peppers; at least two of them should be red, but you can decide for yourself if you want to add another color to the mix for variety. Check on your sausages. Chop a big yellow onion into half-rings. Check on your sausages. Chop eight ounces or so of cremini mushrooms into slices. Check the sausages. Chop two or three big cloves of garlic as small as you can. Check sausages.
Eventually all your sausages will be browned attractively on all sides. Remove them from the skillet and cut them into one-inch-or-so hunks; dump these into a deep ovenproof casserole dish or baking pan.
You will notice that your sausages have left behind quite a bit of wonderful-smelling liquefied fat in your pan, in which you will now cook your sliced mushrooms. Turn up the heat, add a pinch of black pepper, and toss the mushrooms around a bit with your wooden spoon or rubber spatula; they'll quickly absorb all (or nearly all) the fat in the pan and begin browning. Cook them for just a few minutes, then dump them onto the sausages in the casserole dish.
Now, add another tablespoon or so of oil to the hot pan, and cook your peppers and onions in it. Depending on how big your pan is, cooking all of these at once may not be practical; if that's the case, again, it's fine to work in batches. Salt the onions and peppers generously when you dump them in the pan. This will start them sweating, which will help them cook faster, and it'll help the finished product taste better, too. You're not looking for fully caramelized onions, here, which is a good thing because you are hoping to consume this meal at some point prior to the U.S. Tricentennial. You just want the peppers to soften and the onions to become thoroughly translucent. When they get there, add the garlic, and give everything a toss and another couple of minutes to cook, so the garlic can catch up.
So now the peppers and onions and garlic have softened; scatter them across the sausage and mushrooms in the casserole dish (or baking pan). Meanwhile, by now your tomatoes and tomato paste and wine have broken down and blended into one another and have formed a chunky, thick, deeply red, intensely tomato-y sauce. Ladle (or pour) a lot of this sauce across the top of the stuff in your casserole dish, then grab a pair of big spoons and give everything a few tosses to mix it all together. Stick the casserole dish in the oven and set a timer for, oh, 20 minutes or so. Take a break. Maybe go for a stroll.
When the timer's done, the food's done. Carry that big beaut of a dish to the table, set it on an oven mitt, and stick a big serving spoon in there.
Serve your sausage and peppers with some more red wine and a salad, but a boldly flavored one. The main course is rich and intense and not insignificantly piquant (assuming you used hot Italian sausage because you know what is good, or, alternatively, because you are weak-willed and I browbeat you into it), and if you pair it with a wan pile of chopped iceberg lettuce and some sliced cucumbers, it will gang up on that salad and chase it all the way off the table and the next time you see that salad it will be founding Facebook, and nobody wants that, so, please: a salad with some actual flavor, OK?
Also, crucially: Serve your sausage and peppers with a large loaf (or several large loaves) of crusty bread and some room-temperature butter for spreading on that bread. I really cannot emphasize this enough. The difference between eating sausage and peppers by itself, just stabbing things with a fork and depositing them in your mouth, and doing so with a big buttered hunk of crusty bread in your off-hand, dredging this bread through the liquids on your plate, maybe using it as a starchy utensil for delivering the sausage and peppers and onions and mushrooms to your face, is the difference between being really happy and satisfied in a simple, mundane, flowers-in-a-field kind of way, and having your eyesockets literally—literally!—spew prancing unicorns all over the fucking place, which, in case you're not sure exactly what this means, is pretty awesome.
You may find yourself, as you methodically fill all the unoccupied space in your torso with sausage and peppers, coming around to the notion that hey, maybe the winter's not so bad after all. Hot cocoa and crackling fires and snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes and all that shit. You're wrong, of course, because winter is still a bunch of baloney. The important thing, though, is that if you cook enough sausage and peppers to leave behind some leftovers, which you can use to make sausage-and-peppers sandwiches into the foreseeable future, you might, just might, make it through.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. Image by Sam Woolley.