Why It Works
- Coarsely ground pork is packed with Italian spices and spiked with balsamic vinegar before it rests 12 hours in the refrigerator for maximum flavor and juiciness.
- Bell peppers get vinegary and smoky as they marinate and cook on the grill.
While I use my grill year-round, let's be honest—it's just not the same once the weather starts to cool off. As I was musing about that fact and trying to wrap my head around slow-cooked stews, I remembered a heavily pepper-crusted burger I encountered at the butcher some time back. That got me thinking.
What if I took the idea of a pepper-crusted burger, and gave it an Italian-American twist? I decided to make homemade Italian sausage so I could tuck nuggets of mozzarella cheese into the patties, crust them heavily with pepper on the rims, and then finish them off with a dollop of creamy ricotta, red sauce sauce, and fresh basil. Perhaps best of all, though, is the garnish of vinegar peppers that roast on the grill alongside, perfect for stuffing into the buns.
Making Italian sausage requires a fair number of seasonings, but this rendition isn't tricky at all, since you're not working with casings. That said, you do need to give them at least 12 hours, in order to let the flavors marry and the salt to break down the muscle proteins. It may sound like a long time, but it's what will allow them to achieve the juicy snap of a good sausage. Most of the inclusions are typical—dried basil, fennel, garlic, and crushed red pepper—but I've also incorporated balsamic vinegar in lieu of the typical wine vinegar or water, along with some fresh parsley and cayenne.
It's important that you completely seal in the mozzarella that fills the patties so that it doesn't ooze out during grilling. And while this may seem like an awful lot of pepper, don't worry: it's not fiery. In fact, the exterior crust mellows while cooking.
If you're feeling ambitious, a simple, homemade red sauce is best, but a quality, jarred version will do just fine. As for those peppers, they're a great way to use up end-of-season produce, and they're tasty enough to warrant making a double batch. You'll want to snack on them later.
- For the Sausage:
- 1 1/2 pounds coarsely ground pork
- 1/2 tablespoon cracked black pepper, plus 1/4 cup for crusting, divided
- 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 tablespoon onion powder
- 3 cloves garlic, very finely minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, lightly toasted and ground
- 1/2 tablespoon dried basil
- 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 4 (1/2-by 2- by 2-inch) squares mozzarella cheese
- For the Peppers:
- 4 large bell peppers, seeds and stems discarded and cut into chunks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- To Serve:
- 4 crusty rolls
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup homemade or store-bought red sauce
Combine pork, 1/2 tablespoon ground pepper, salt, onion powder, garlic, fennel, basil, oregano, paprika, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, parsley, and vinegar in a large bowl. Combine using hands and kneading to evenly distribute spices. Place in a resealable bag or container and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
The next day, place remaining 1/4 cup black pepper on a plate. Remove Italian sausage from the refrigerator. Form four equally divided portions around a nugget of mozzarella, creating patties with thick, flat sides. Make sure they are sealed very tightly around the mozzarella. Roll the edges of the patties through the black pepper to crust. Set aside on a large plate.
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over half of coal grate. Alternatively, set half the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
Place bell pepeprs peppers in a 13- by 9- disposable aluminum baking pan. Add olive oil and vinegar, season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Transfer to the cooler side of the grill. Cover and cook until tender, about 25 minutes.
When peppers are about half done, place Italian sausage patties on hot side of the grill. Cover and cook until well charred on first, side, 5 to 8 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until cooked through and cheese on the interior is melted, another 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.
Toast rolls over fire until crusty. Remove from grill. Place burger patties on bottom buns. Slather with ricotta, top with red sauce, basil leaves, and peppers, close burgers, and serve immediately.
For a faster version, use 1 1/2 pounds store-bought Italian sausage, removed from its casing.