Talk of Italian food inspires time in kitchen

Sausage and peppers is the ubiquitous street-fair food found sizzling on a grill at almost every gathering from the State Fair to Return Day. BY JACK CLEMONS
September 26, 2011

We’re planning to visit downtown Lewes this afternoon, making sure to wear red, white and green - the town is celebrating an Italian Festival. Restaurants have advertised authentic specialties, including biscotti, cannoli, gnocchi, risotto and lasagna. Second Street will be closed to vehicles as merchants open sidewalk cafes and offer themed discounts at their sale tables.

A few of the highlights we’re looking forward to are the olive oil tasting at Lewes Gourmet, a cup of Notting Hill’s espresso, and the amaretto ice cream dessert at King’s. If we have any room left for dinner, we’ll have to choose between Jerry’s ravioli and Half Full’s pizza. When we get thirsty, we’ll visit R&L liquors to sample Italian wines or Blooming Boutique for a sip of limoncello punch.

We’ll try to stop by the Zwaandendael Museum for a game of bocce, or Deanna’s and Piccolino while children have their faces painted. We’ll watch the strolling street musicians and stage shows as they fill the air with the sights and sounds of Italy, especially when the evening concludes with a musical tribute to Italy’s well-known operatic composers.

All of this talk about Italian food inspired me to spend time in the kitchen preparing a few of the treats we might find at the festival - just in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. The first dish that came to mind was sausage and peppers, the ubiquitous street-fair food found sizzling on a grill at almost every gathering from the Delaware State Fair to Return Day.

There are a few keys to making this simple dish shine with authentic flavor notes. Choose a combination of hot and sweet Italian sausages to add just enough heat. Make sure the sausages are made with fennel seed for that familiar hint of licorice. For best results, grill the sausages before slicing them and tossing them into the pan with sautéed onions and peppers.

I like to add tomato flavor (but not mushy texture) with a splash of V8 juice or a teaspoon of tomato paste. For another subtle tang, consider stirring balsamic vinegar into the vegetables. As you can see in the photo, I didn’t include the sliced green peppers called for in most recipes; you can always add them if you prefer their sharp taste. At a street fair, sausage and peppers are typically served as a sandwich on a long hoagie roll, making it easier to eat as you wander. If you wanted to serve the mixture over pasta, choose a small shape like penne or oricchette.

Another favorite Italian main course (especially for lunch) is calzone, a pocket sandwich that looks like a folded pizza. Fillings for calzone can be cooked meats or vegetables or various combinations, but always with a layer of creamy ricotta cheese. To avoid a mess in your oven, be sure to tightly seal the seam with the tines of a fork. Recipes will call for brushing the top of the calzone with either olive oil or egg wash before baking; I prefer the satiny finish the egg wash creates.

We couldn’t consider Italian food without including dessert. I’m not about to try to bake delicate pastries like the shell-shaped sfogliatelle and I don’t own a pizzelle baker (also good for waffle cones). We’ll make an elegant tiramisu - a creamy combination of espresso-soaked ladyfingers between layers of mascarpone custard. One taste and it’s no surprise to learn the translation of tiramisu is “pick me up.” Now, if you can’t make it to the Italian Festival, you’ll be able to taste some of the special flavors of the day - hope to see you on Second Street.

Sausage and Peppers
1 lb hot Italian sausage links
1 lb sweet Italian sausage links
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 T olive oil
3 onions, sliced
1/4 C V8 juice
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T oregano
1 T parsley

Grill the sausage until well browned. Cut into one-inch slices; set aside. Core the peppers and slice into 3/8-inch-wide strips. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet and add the peppers and onions. Cook over medium high for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the V8 juice. Sauté until soft but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sliced sausage, balsamic vinegar and seasonings. Cook for another 5 minutes to meld the flavors.

1 package refrigerated pizza dough
1 lb bulk Italian sausage
1 diced onion
1 T basil
1 1/3 C grated mozzarella cheese
2 C whole milk ricotta cheese
4 t grated Parmesan cheese
1 beaten egg

Preheat oven to 400 F. Sauté the sausage and onion in a large skillet over medium heat, crumbling the meat into small chunks. When the meat is almost cooked through, stir in basil and remove from heat. Divide the dough into 4 balls; roll out each into an 8-inch circle about 1/4-inch thick. Cover the lower half of each circle with 1/3 C mozzarella cheese. Cover cheese with equal portions of the meat mixture, 1/2 C ricotta cheese and 1 t Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Fold the top half of the dough over the filling into a half-moon shape. Seal the edge by tightly crimping the dough together with a fork. Brush the top with beaten egg and place on a cookie sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes, on the lowest rack in the oven.

8 oz brewed espresso
2 oz brandy, divided
4 T unsweetened cocoa, divided
1 lb mascarpone cheese
6 eggs, separated
3 T sugar
2 packages lady fingers

Pour the espresso into a pie pan. Stir in 1 oz brandy and one t cocoa powder; set aside. Place egg yolks and egg whites in separate mixing bowls. Beat egg whites until fluffy peaks form; set aside. Add sugar to the egg yolks and beat until creamy. Add mascarpone and remaining 1 oz brandy; mix until combined. Fold beaten egg whites into mascarpone mixture, stirring only until blended; set aside. Place a 9-by-12-inch baking pan near your work area. Briefly dip each ladyfinger into the espresso, sugared side up; place the ladyfinger in the pan, sugared side down. Pull enough liquid into the little cakes without creating a soggy mess. Repeat with the remaining ladyfingers until the bottom of the pan is covered. Spoon a layer of mascarpone mixture across the top, using about half. Create another layer of espresso-dipped ladyfingers and cover with remaining mascarpone mixture. Place the cocoa powder in a sifter and dust the top with an even layer of cocoa. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving.

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