This week we're sharing the recipe for one of our favorite comfort foods, Italian Stuffed Peppers, featuring a savory mix of Italian sausage, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cheese, herbs and a bit of cooked rice, just to hold everything together.

These Italian stuffed peppers are a wonderful blend of flavor and nutrition, complete with ingredients from the four main food groups, including protein, dairy, grains and vegetables.

They are hearty enough to serve as an easy weeknight main course, but elegant enough to feature as a first course for a more formal setting. When serving as an appetizer, we cut the peppers in half before stuffing them, either lengthwise or straight across the middle, depending on preference and plate size.

For a pleasing presentation, I like to use a variety of colors when making stuffed peppers, and you can regularly find bags of six green or multi-color bell peppers for a reasonable price at large retailers like Sam's Club and Costco.

This recipe is a great way to use up leftover rice, but if you're making it fresh we recommend cooking it with chicken stock instead of water, with a bay leaf or two, for a more flavorful result. Cooked rice freezes wonderfully, and I usually cook an entire bag at once and then freeze it in small portions so that it's ready to use whenever needed. You could also use a mix of white and wild rice, brown rice, basmati rice or even other grains like quinoa or couscous.

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We prefer to use Italian sausage versus ground beef, as we find that it brings terrific flavor to the filling, as well as a richer texture — and it just makes the dish more Italian. We've also included a quarter cup of fresh parsley, as well as an optional teaspoon of Italian seasoning, which is typically a pre-made blend of dried herbs like basil, oregano, fennel and/or thyme.

Tony prefers his stuffed peppers a little on the al dente side, so I don't blanch or steam them before baking. For peppers on the softer side, you can blanch them in a pot of boiling water for about five minutes, or steam them for eight to 10 minutes before stuffing with the sausage filling.

In addition to the sausage, rice and herbs, the other main components for the filling include onion, tomatoes, bell pepper, garlic and fresh mozzarella cheese. For the bell pepper, I use the cut tops and slice around the stem area, chopping the remaining pepper into small diced pieces. When dicing, try to keep the size of your pieces consistent for the onions, tomatoes and bell pepper.

A cup and a half of cheese is used in both the filling and on top of each pepper. We use diced fresh mozzarella because we love its superior melting properties and mellow flavor, but pre-packaged, shredded mozzarella or another easy-melting cheese would also work well. For a final Italian flourish, a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese is sprinkled over each pepper before baking.

The peppers can be washed, cut and refrigerated at least three days before stuffing, and the sausage filling can be made up to five days in advance, or frozen for up to three months, so I often make a double batch and freeze half for later use.

Easy to make and delicious to eat, these Italian Stuffed Peppers are savory, aromatic and always a crowd pleaser at our dinner table.

Italian Stuffed Peppers

Makes: 6

Ingredients:

6 large bell peppers, tops removed and seeds cleaned out (save tops to use in filling)

1 pound ground Italian sausage, mild or hot

½ cup yellow onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ to 2 cups fresh Roma tomatoes, diced (about 4 tomatoes)

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon Italian seasoning, optional

1 cup cooked long grain rice

¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

1 ½ cups fresh mozzarella, cut into small pieces

Salt and pepper, according to taste

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil, for garnish if desired

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Wash each pepper before using and cut the tops off. Use a sharp knife to remove the stem area from each top and then finely dice the remaining portion into small pieces; set aside.

Use your hand or a sharp knife to remove the core and all of the seeds from the peppers, as well as any excess membrane. Lightly grease a baking dish and place the peppers cut-side up, closely together so that they can stand upright.In a frying pan, cook the sausage over medium heat until lightly browned. Transfer the cooked sausage to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain any excess fat. In the same pan, add the diced onion and peppers and cook over medium heat until beginning to soften, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, then add the diced tomatoes, crushed red pepper, Italian seasoning and a pinch or 2 of kosher salt. Continue cooking until everything is heated through, about 3 minutes, then stir in the cooked sausage and rice. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired, then stir in the parsley and 1 cup of the mozzarella until incorporated.

Fill each pepper with the sausage mixture and top each with a sprinkling of the remaining mozzarella, then finish with a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese. Drizzle each pepper with a little olive oil, then fill the baking dish with about ¼ inch of water or chicken stock.

Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil, and bake until the peppers are soft to the touch and the cheese is melted and golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

To store: Store baked peppers in an airtight container for up to 3 days and reheat in microwave or a 350 degree oven until hot.

To freeze baked peppers: Cool peppers completely. Cover dish with plastic wrap, followed by a layer of aluminum foil and freeze for up to 3 month. Or, place cooled peppers on a baking sheet and place in freezer until hard, at least 3 to 4 hours. Once frozen, wrap each pepper in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container or freezer bag for up to 3 months. To reheat, remove wrapping and bake at 350 degrees until hot (peppers may also be thawed overnight in refrigerator before reheating).

If making in advance:

  • Prepare the peppers for stuffing, place them in a freezer bag and store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before stuffing and baking.
  • Prepare the sausage mixture, cool completely then transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months

Sarah's tips:

  • To make your own Italian seasoning, combine a ¼ teaspoon each of dried basil, oregano and thyme with a pinch of garlic powder and kosher salt.
  • If softer peppers are desired, before stuffing them, blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes or steam for 8 to 10 minutes.
  • In lieu of white rice, you could also use brown, wild or basmati rice, as well as other grains like quinoa or couscous.

“Home With the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.