- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

BATON ROUGE, La. — I overheard a dinner guest describe stuffed mushrooms as “appetizer nirvana.” That’s a strong recommendation for these oldie-but-goodie party morsels. Did they really rate that high an appraisal? I wondered aloud”Take a bite,” my fellow guest said, and offered a toothpick-speared mushroom from the platter on the table in front of us. I took a mouthful of the meaty morsel filled with a buttery crabmeat-and-toasted-bread-crumb stuffing.

“Well?” he wanted to know, wouldn’t I agree that this elegant hors d’oeuvre deserved its lofty reputation?

“Nirvana” was a tad effusive in my estimation, but I had to admit the stuffed mushroom was rich, warm and pleasant-tasting. Why, I wondered, weren’t more hosts serving stuffed mushrooms? “These are wonderful.”

I got my answer Monday at work.

“They’re time-consuming,” typist Nancy Wolford said. “I made 200 stuffed mushrooms for a niece’s wedding reception. Stuffing those little slippery caps is a labor of love.”

Because stuffing individual mushrooms is labor-intensive, stuffed-mushroom appetizers are offered mostly in midrange to upscale restaurants, where chefs have kitchen assistants who can handle the requisite chopping, sauteing and stuffing with ease.

Stuffed mushrooms continue to be one of the best-selling first courses at such restaurants, and the folks who think of these bite-size goodies as “appetizer nirvana” still enjoy eating them.

Although most home cooks don’t think of stuffed mushrooms as family fare, there’s no reason why they couldn’t show up on the dinner table as well as the party tray. The key to making this possible is examining the mushroom-stuffing process to see if it can be made simpler and less time-consuming.

Selecting the right mushroom for stuffing is important. Look for small, whole mushrooms. The bigger ones are too large a mouthful and really are better as fork food than finger food.

New on the market are small cremini mushrooms labeled “baby portobello” mushrooms. (All portobello mushrooms are cremini at various stages of development.)

Small creminis are light tan to brown and have a stronger meaty or mushroom flavor than the more common white mushrooms. White mushrooms are the most popular. Small white mushrooms are creamy white to beige.

The food staff tested recipes using both mushrooms. Both varieties held up equally well to cleaning, trimming, stuffing and cooking. However, the staff found a big difference in taste between the two types of mushrooms and recommended using the white mushrooms for more delicate crab- or shrimp-based stuffings. The baby portobellos worked well with sausage, eggplant and heartier-flavored stuffings.

Stuffed-mushroom aficionados describe the perfect stuffed mushroom as having a firm, meaty mushroom cap, buttery filling and toasted top. Their chief criticism is that the filling or stuffing tastes steamed rather than sauteed and buttery. Also, they don’t like the top of the mushroom to be soggy or, again, to taste and feel as if it has been steamed. They like a lightly crisped top, achieved by broiling, not microwaving, before serving.

Working with this flavor profile for a perfect stuffed mushroom, the staff experimented with how to achieve it.

We had problems overcoming the steamy softness described as a flaw. Baking, broiling and microwaving, even in combination, didn’t overcome the steam that developed between the mushroom and the filling and made the filling soggy.

I remembered reading cookbook author and restaurant critic John Mariani’s tip to pre-season mushrooms before adding them to Pasta Primavera to intensify the mushroom flavor, so I decided to try handling the mushroom caps as I would an eggplant that I was going to saute.

I mixed ⅛ teaspoon salt into 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. After I rinsed, cleaned and trimmed the mushroom caps, I tossed them in the seasoned olive oil, making sure the caps were coated inside and out with the seasoned oil.

Then I put the caps on paper towels to drain. After 30 minutes, I turned the caps over and continued draining.

The seasoned olive oil darkened the mushroom caps and changed the texture, just as it does when you pre-salt eggplant. The mushrooms gave off a good bit of moisture and firmed up considerably. On one batch, I actually had to change the paper towel because the mushrooms were giving off so much moisture.

I prepared the stuffing as usual and filled the caps. I prefer baking the caps in a little butter at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, then crisping the top of the mushroom stuffing by broiling for a few more minutes or just until the top of the buttery stuffing is toasted.

Pre-seasoning the mushroom caps in seasoned olive oil made a huge difference in the taste and texture of the stuffed mushrooms. We never had any more steamed or soggy filling problems.

We also found that we could assemble the pre-seasoned stuffed mushrooms and refrigerate them until we were ready to bake and serve, again with no problems.

Though we were able to achieve a predictably “perfect” stuffed mushroom, we weren’t able to eliminate the time-consuming labor. Mushrooms still have to be cleaned and trimmed, the filling cooked, and the mushrooms individually stuffed, baked and broiled. It’s a multistep preparation that eats up the clock.

But put on a John Fred or Fats Domino album from the 1960s, and you’ll be taken back to a period when home cooks had time to make elaborate party foods and the stuffed mushroom was king of the appetizer tray.

We suggest you include the pre-seasoning preparation described above when you make any of the following recipes.

Caponata-stuffed mushrooms

This recipe is from “The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook.”

2 pounds medium mushrooms

About 4 tablespoons olive oil

½ small (1-pound) eggplant, coarsely chopped

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

1 small celery stalk, coarsely chopped

½ cup chili sauce

1 tablespoon capers, drained

¼ teaspoon dried basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Salt

2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds, finely chopped

Remove stems from mushrooms. Coarsely chop stems; set caps aside.

In 10-inch skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat; add mushroom stems, eggplant, onion and celery, and cook, stirring frequently, 15 minutes, or until tender and browned.

Stir in chili sauce, capers and basil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in parsley.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush mushroom caps lightly with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt.

Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of filling into each mushroom cap. (Use any leftover filling to serve on crackers another day.)

Place in jellyroll pan; bake 10 minutes or until mushrooms are tender and hot. To serve, sprinkle with almonds. Makes about 48 mushrooms.

Nutrition information per mushroom: About 20 calories, 1 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 1 g total fat (0 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 40 mg sodium.

Sausage-stuffed mushrooms

This recipe is from Mike Anderson’s “Seafood and Other South Louisiana Favorites.”

16 medium mushrooms

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Butter

½ pound mild Italian sausage

⅛ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the mushroom stems and mince them. Toss the caps with the lemon juice.

Butter a shallow baking dish. Remove the sausage from its casing; put it in a medium bowl. Add the mushroom stems, salt and pepper. Mix lightly to blend. Fill the cavity of each mushroom cap with the stuffing, mounding it slightly. Put in the prepared baking dish. Bake until the sausage is no longer pink, about 15 minutes.

Louisiana crabmeat mushrooms

This recipe is also from “Seafood and Other South Louisiana Favorites.”

3/4 cup chopped yellow onions

3/4 cup chopped fresh mushrooms

1½ sticks margarine or butter

¼ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1½ teaspoons granulated garlic

¼ pound crabmeat (claw)

1½ tablespoons chopped green onions

1½ teaspoons parsley flakes

1 tablespoon fresh Italian bread crumbs

24 fresh jumbo mushroom caps

Grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium saucepan, saute yellow onions and chopped mushrooms in ½ stick margarine or butter. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes over low heat. Stir frequently. Add salt, cayenne pepper and garlic. Stir. Add crabmeat. Cover and simmer 12 minutes. Add green onions, parsley and bread crumbs. Mix well.

Fill each mushroom cap with stuffing. Melt remaining 1 stick margarine or butter, and pour it into a baking dish. Place mushrooms in margarine or butter. Broil on high 4 minutes. If refrigerated, broil on high 8 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Mississippi crab-stuffed mushrooms

Nutmeg is the secret in these succulent little treats. Use smaller mushrooms to increase the quantity for a large crowd. This recipe is from the November-December issue of Mississippi magazine.

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon paprika

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound good lump crabmeat, picked over

¼ cup sherry

3 dozen small or 2 dozen medium white mushrooms (about 3 1-pint containers)

Olive oil

Paprika, chopped chives or parsley for garnish

Make a good, thick cream sauce by melting butter and flour, then adding milk slowly until desired consistency is attained. Stir with wire whisk until smooth.

Add seasonings and crabmeat, stirring gently to avoid breaking up crab pieces, until mixture just comes to a boil. Add sherry, remove from heat, and stir.

Remove stems from mushrooms. Rinse mushroom caps well, and dry them with paper towels. Rub with olive oil. Spoon filling into mushroom caps, then bake until tender in medium oven (350 degrees).

Drain off excess moisture before placing on serving platter, and garnish each with paprika, chopped chives or a tiny parsley sprig, if desired.

Buying and cooking mushrooms

Buy mushrooms that are firm and free of flaws. The surface of the cap should be dry but not dried out. Check to make sure there is no mold in the package.

Refrigerate mushrooms in their original package until ready to use. The mushrooms will stay fresh for up to a week.

If you buy loose mushrooms, don’t wash them until ready to use. Store in a closed paper bag or loosely covered container in the refrigerator.

Just before using, quickly rinse with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Don’t let the mushrooms get soggy.

Twist the stem to remove from the cap. Use a small melon-ball scoop to remove the tougher area inside the cap where the stem was attached.

Coat caps with seasoned olive oil and drain them on paper towels for 30 minutes to 1 hour. The longer draining time is preferable.

Pat dry again, just before stuffing.

Bake and broil according to recipe instructions. Leftover stuffed mushrooms can be covered and refrigerated, then reheated in the microwave or oven.

You can freeze cooked stuffed mushrooms, but freezing will produce a mushroom with a denser texture. It’s best to reheat frozen stuffed mushrooms in a microwave and then run them under the broiler to crisp the top crust.


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