In the spring of 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp brightened Northern Hemisphere skies. I was seven years old, in the 2nd grade, and fascinated. It was the celestial sketch that kids my age drew in paintings during art class: a glowing orb in oranges and yellows with a long tail streaking gracefully behind. It did not fit into the sky-scene at all. It just glowed through the pink, dusky sky and kept shining through the dark night for months.
My parents put an incredible amount of time making our backyard into a beautiful space, full of bright zinnias, happy sunflowers, and bold hydrangeas, which each took their turns to perk up our home. Starting in the spring, when the lingering heat at dusk brings out flowers’ perfumes, family dinners frequently moved outside. Rather than enjoying the typical Alabama evenings, that spring, we were captivated by Hale-Bopp, which was hovering just above my neighbor’s garage. Dad would grill, and we would have long dinners, talking and staring at the comet.
Hale-Bopp remained visible from my backyard for only a month, but, in our memories, it was forever suspended in the sky when we grilled out. Without fail, my dad would raise his hand at some point in dinner and point into the northwestern sky, just above the neighbor’s garage and to the right of a spindly crepe myrtle and say, “Remember when Hale-Bopp was there?” My brother and I would moan out begrudging acknowledgements, but I really did love thinking back on that phenomenal display.
Eleven springs and summers passed before we moved. Hale-Bopp did not travel to Chattanooga with us, although my dad still occasionally throws out a “Remember when we used to grill out and think about…” comment. Still, every time the grill gets fired up in the spring, I happily think of that and wonderful family dinners on the patio.
Last week marked the beginning of grilling season for me; four of the past six dinners have come with the heavenly hint of charcoal taste, and two of those have included these stuffed peppers. Unlike the oozing, oily cheese-filled peppers that tend to make up the stuffed pepper genre, these are packed with hearty Italian sausage, seasoned with a hint of extra fennel, sweet tomatoes, and feta. The grill brings out the flavors, making it perfect for eating under a spring sky – comet-lit or not.
Italian Sausage-Stuffed Peppers
Serves 6 as a side
6 hot peppers of your choice (I used 3 Anaheim and 3 Poblano)
1 lb. mild Italian Sausage
1 tbs fennel seed
⅓ cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
Dash of Tobasco
½ cup crumbled feta
In a large skillet, toast the fennel seed for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a mortar, add a pinch of salt, and grind with your pestle.
Remove sausage from its casing and add to the skillet; cook, breaking into small pieces, until fully cooked. Add fennel, tomatoes, Tobasco, and feta; mix well.
Starting with one pepper, cut in half in a way that best allows each half to lie flat. Use a small spoon to scoop seeds out. (Note: the spiciness of the sausage mixture combined with the spice of the pepper’s flesh is just the right amount of heat to work with the myriad of flavors. But if extra spicy is your goal, feel free to leave some seeds behind.) Repeat with the other peppers. Fill each pepper with the sausage mixture.
Grill the peppers over direct heat for 5 minutes, then an additional 2-3 minutes over indirect heat.