Italian "Sausage" Sandwiches with Spicy Grilled Peppers and Fennel-Onion Mustard

August 12, 2011
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

When I was a child growing up in Denver, Colorado, it was a tradition to attend and help out at an annual Italian fair. The fair, which is still a North Denver institution, is called St. Rocco's Feast, and it is sponsored by the Societa di Nativi di Potenza, a fraternal social club whose members are descendants of immigrants from Potenza, Basilicata, Italy. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all active members of this organization. The celebration of St. Rocco's Feast starts with a Catholic mass and a procession, where the right to carry a statue of St. Rocco is bid upon. (St. Rocco was a twelfth-century French priest who went to Rome and devoted himself to plague victims, performing many miraculous cures.) After the mass, an Italian street fair is held, complete with live music, raffles, and games of chance. Prizes center around Italian food, such as a gallon of olive oil, a salami, a round Provolone cheese ball hanging from a string, or even a homemade cake. Hot dogs, homemade popcorn balls, and sausage and fried pepper sandwiches are also sold to fair-goers.

When I was a child, I was happy enough to eat a hot dog and a popcorn ball. But when I was a teenager, I developed a fondness for the sausage and pepper sandwiches. These were not the ubiquitous link sausage sandwiches commonly served in a hot dog bun. No, these sandwiches resembled hamburgers; bulk sausage was shaped into a patty, then grilled. The sausage was spicy and the sandwiches delivered an extra kick thanks to mouth-tingling fried Italian peppers and a smear of yellow mustard. I hadn’t thought about these sandwiches in years, but when the Your Best Fair Food contest was announced, I wanted to pay homage to them.

Instead of using actual Italian sausage, I opted to make the meat mixture myself so that I could add my own flavorings. For the best flavor, I recommend using really good quality pork, preferably purchased from a butcher. I experimented with some different cuts of pork, but found that using a mix of sirloin and shank delivered the best flavor. You don't want your pork meat to be too lean or it will taste dry. As for the peppers, a sweet pepper such as a bell pepper is simply too mild -- you want something with a little bit of heat. And while you could serve these sandwiches with plain mustard, relish, or even ketchup, it doesn't take much effort to whip up some fennel-onion mustard. The inspiration for the mustard comes from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home. Keller has recipes for several vegetable mustards. He recommends using any vegetable that can be cooked and puréed, and then simply blending it with vinegar and bottled mustard. I decided to use fennel because I love the flavor combination of fennel and pork. While I have borrowed some of Keller's basic mustard-making technique, I have opted to use my own flavorings, such as fennel pollen (which I am drying in copious amounts from my garden), olive oil, and mustard seeds. The result is pretty tasty and would work well on all sorts of sandwiches and grilled meats. —cookinginvictoria

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: Cookinginvictoria is an editor, writer, and mom living in British Columbia.
WHAT: Sausage shouldn't be confined to links; make your own, and put it on a sandwich.
HOW: Blend sautéed fennel and onion with Dijon mustard and fennel seeds for a homemade mustard. Next, make a “sausage” mixture from alliums, pancetta, herbs, and pork. As you grill the meat patties, roast the peppers until charred. Now all that’s left to do is make a sandwich with the mustard, meat, and peppers on grilled buns .
WHY WE LOVE IT: No matter how much you love grilling, sometimes everyone needs a break from the standard hamburgers and ketchup. This fennel mustard alone is great to add your grilling repertoire, and it acts as a perfect complement to the flavors of Italian sausage and the slightly spicy peppers. —hardlikearmour

  • Prep time 40 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6, with plenty of mustard left to use on sandwiches, grilled pork or chicken, etc.
  • For the homemade mustard
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 fennel bulb, stalks and core removed, roughly chopped
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, ground
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel pollen or freshly ground fennel seed
  • 1 pinch salt to taste
  • For the "sausage" and pepper sandwiches
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 1/2 ounces pancetta
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary, finely chopped
  • 3 teaspoons sage, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons fennel pollen or freshly ground fennel seed
  • 3 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 1 pound pork (not too lean and preferably sourced from a butcher)
  • 1 teaspoon grapeseed oil
  • 6 hamburger buns, preferably whole grain
  • 6 Italian frying peppers (sometimes called Cubanelle peppers) or other slightly spicy peppers
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, more to taste
In This Recipe
  1. For the homemade mustard
  2. Heat a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is warm, add fennel and onion to pan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened and edges have just started to brown. Add minced garlic to pan. After a minute or so, when garlic starts to release its aroma, adjust heat to low and add vinegar to pan—the mixture will sizzle for a minute. Continue to cook until there is only a tablespoon or two of liquid left in the pan and vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and let vegetables cool for about 15 minutes.
  3. Add vegetable mixture and any remaining liquid to a blender. Add ground mustard seeds, thyme, 2 tablespoons water, Dijon mustard, and fennel pollen to the blender. Begin blending the mixture. With motor running, drizzle in remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add additional water a tablespoon at a time if mixture is too thick and isn't puréeing easily. Depending on how powerful your blender motor is, you may want to purée mixture in batches. I found that it worked well for my blender to divide the mixture into two batches. Continue blending until the mixture resembles a smooth purée.
  4. Taste the mustard, and add salt 1/2 teaspoon at a time until the flavor is balanced. If the mustard does not taste sufficiently mustardy, add additional cider vinegar a teaspoon at a time until the flavor tastes right.
  5. Remove the mustard from blender and put in serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate while you cook peppers and sandwiches. Mustard will keep in fridge for several weeks.
  1. For the "sausage" and pepper sandwiches
  2. Chop shallots, garlic, and pancetta as finely as you can. In a large mixing bowl, add the first eight ingredients (shallots through thyme) and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the pork to the bowl and gently separate the pork strands with your fingers. Gently mix everything together with your hands until the pork is coated with seasonings.
  3. Test the pork mixture by pan-frying a miniature patty: Form one tablespoon-sized ball of meat with your fingers. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and add grapeseed oil to pan. When oil is hot, flatten sausage ball slightly and add to pan. Cook for about 1 1/2 minutes per side, or until meat has developed a golden crust. Remove mini-patty from pan and let rest for a minute or two. Taste to judge if seasonings should be adjusted. Add a little more salt to the meat in the mixing bowl if needed. If the mini-patty doesn't taste spicy enough, add more crushed red pepper to bowl. If the herbal flavors aren't coming through very strongly, add more rosemary, sage, and thyme to the bowl.
  4. Divide the rest of the meat into six portions. Form each portion into a large ball. Place on a cookie sheet or large plate and refrigerate.
  5. If you have a charcoal grill, light the coals. If you have a gas grill, as I do, light the grill and turn up the heat to medium-high. If you have some mesquite wood chips, put some of them in your smoker box. While grill is heating, remove stems from peppers, slice them in half, and remove seeds. Brush outside of pepper halves with 1 tablespoon or so of olive oil.
  6. When grill is hot (about 500° F), oil the grill's cooking rack. Add peppers to the rack and cover the grill. Grill peppers for about 3 to 4 minutes per side until the peppers have some nice charring. It is not necessary for the peppers to be totally blackened. Remove the peppers and put them in a bowl to continue steaming. Cover with a tea towel.
  7. Remove the pork balls from the fridge. Slightly flatten each one with your hand or a spatula until it resembles a thick hamburger patty. Grill each patty for about 4 to 5 minutes per side until the outside of the patties are nice and golden and the insides are cooked to a light pink. I usually cut one patty and take a peek inside to see if it's done. Do not overcook—pork that's too well done gets tough very quickly! Remove patties from heat and let them rest for about five minutes.
  8. While the meat is resting, brush the insides of each bun with the remaining tablespoon or so of olive oil. Grill buns on the warming rack until they are a lovely golden brown. Remove peppers from the bowl and put them on a platter. Remove the skin and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.
  9. Put a bun on each diner's plate. Spread some fennel-onion mustard on the insides of the buns. Top with a meat patty and one or two slices of grilled pepper. Serve with an ice cold beer or a glass of lemonade. Enjoy, and dine al fresco if you can!

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In 2009, after living more than twenty years in NYC, my husband, young daughter and I packed up our lives and embarked on a grand adventure, moving to Victoria, B.C. There are many things that we miss about New York (among them ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh ravioli and New York bagels), but, I have to admit, that living in the Pacific Northwest has been pretty amazing food-wise. Now we have a yard with plum and apple trees, a raspberry and strawberry patch and a Concord grape arbor. I have a vegetable and herb garden, so I can grow at least some of our food. And we have an amazing farmer's market a block from our house. I love cooking (and eating) seasonally and locally. And it's been very rewarding introducing my daughter to cooking and eating, and teaching her where our food comes from.