Last week’s experiment left us, as you may recall, a bit underwhelmed. Or perhaps just whelmed, in my case. I didn’t love it, I certainly didn’t hate it. This week we needed a real comeback kid to reinvigorate and inspire us.
We found it.
“39. Trim crimini or Portobello mushrooms and chop stems. Cook crumbled sausage in olive oil until it begins to brown, then add stems and chopped onion and garlic. Mix with cooked rice, an egg for every 2 cups of mushrooms and enough bread crumbs and Parmesan to bind slightly. Spoon the stuffing into the mushroom caps and bake until tender.”
Since the temperature was relatively cool going into Saturday afternoon, I thought I’d give it a try. The players were all there, from the old three-coursers of my childhood: meat, starch, and veg. Here, though, they were nicely tangled together and collected in their very own serving vessel. It sounded enticing.
3 cups cooked rice (1 cup brown, 2 cups white)
1 lb. pork sausage
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
¼ cup red onion, diced
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned crumbs)
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
I put my sausage in a skillet with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, broke it up a little with a wooden spatula, and took on the mushroom caps while it started to sizzle. I scraped out the gills and then dug my spoon down into the spongy “meat,” excavating great lumps of mushroom while being careful not to break through the bottom of the cap. I probably left a good ¼ – ½ inch shell. Along with the stems, I chopped up these pieces fairly finely.
Because I didn’t want all the grease the sausage had exuded, I drained it, reserving no more than a few tablespoons, and put the fully cooked sausage crumbles into a bowl along with the cooked rice. Then I spilled the mushrooms into the flavorful skillet and let them brown. I chopped up the onion and garlic and added them in a few minutes after I’d started the mushrooms. The smell was perfect. I read once that the smell of sautéing garlic and onions is a great way to impress a man. This is one of those half truths. In reality, I think, it’s a great way to impress anyone. If I had to choose my top ten favorite scents, that would be one of them. It might even crest into top five.
When the onions were tender and translucent, I killed the heat and poured the vegetation into my mixing bowl with the rice and sausage. Because I had WAY more than would fit into four mushroom caps, I reserved all but about two cups for later use before adding the egg.
I mixed the egg into the mixture with a fork, then dumped on some bread crumbs and Parmesan. The quantities of these last two components, as Bittman says, will depend largely on the composition of your bowl. You may need (or want) more of one or both, you may need less. When I was satisfied, the filling clumped together only slightly, and only when pressed. I would wager a guess that you don’t want it too clumpy or too solidly packed, or it will take too long to heat all the way through in the oven.
I lumped, and piled, and stacked the filling into the mushroom caps, which I’d positioned on a baking sheet. Then I plunged the whole thing into the oven, which was preheated to a temperature that, embarrassingly, escapes me. It was one of three temps: 350, 375, or 400F. Though a higher temperature will of course produce a crunchier, browner top, I don’t think this variance of 50 degrees will make an amazing amount of difference to your results.
Whatever the case, I gave the mushrooms half an hour to become magical, and was far from disappointed. The Portobello caps themselves darkened in color, turning from musty dusty brown to rich and deep. They softened, going tender but not watery, and retaining enough textural integrity that we needed knives to slice through neatly.
As for the filling, can you say umami? The mystical, MSG-esque “fifth taste” was well in evidence here. Not only did we have the rich beefiness of the mushrooms themselves, as vessels and interspersed throughout, but we had the sausage, herby-spicy-rich, and the brown rice, which added not only appealing texture but also an earthy taste. Next time I would use solely brown rice for this dish, because its taste and lingering toothsome quality were so nice. I suspect some of the flavor punch was a result of cooking the rice in a garlicky homemade chicken broth, which I would certainly recommend, if you have some on hand. We rounded out the meal with kale chips and beer and both were, I feel, wise choices.* Kale has a deep, slightly bitter flavor, but it mellows when you roast it, and the paprika and sea salt I sprinkled on top made it a smoky, salty delight. The beer, of course, added to the earthy quality of the meal, with its lingering yeast flavors.
As we dug our way through the hidden treasures these mushrooms held, N. turned to me and said “Redemption.” I think that says it all.
* This photo, however, does not show kale chips. It shows steamed spinach, which was the accompaniment for lunch the following day.