Chopped Challenge #1: Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: bulk sausage, bell pepper, sriracha, panko bread crumbs

Here it is! The first “basket”! N. decided that for the first challenge of the year, it would make sense to offer the first course of the meal, so to speak. He says he will change up and randomize courses later on, but I know for sure that January = appetizer, February = entrée, and March = dessert. That doesn’t tell me much, but it does offer a solid start.

As seems so often to be the case with real Chopped baskets, three of the four ingredients seemed to go together well however I shuffled them. Sausage, bell pepper, panko: reasonable! Sausage, bell pepper, sriracha: okay. Even bell pepper, sriracha, and panko seemed to fit. But all four? I couldn’t wrap my brain around how it was going to work and still keep this an appetizer.

Ultimately I landed on a blast from the past, if you will. I’ve been digging mushrooms lately, and realized at least three of the four: the sausage, the bell peppers, and the panko, could get crammed inside (or at least on top of) a mushroom and baked into a tasty, bite-sized little throwback classic. The sriracha would have to become part of a sauce – I didn’t fancy a spicy kick inside my mushrooms (besides, one of the biggest complaints from the judges on the actual show is the relative dryness of a dish – they are always after a sauce or dressing component).

To wrestle the heat into the dish, but also to ensure more exposure for the bell peppers, which were really just going to get minced and cooked down with the sausage and some onions, I decided roasted red pepper would be a nice flavor base for the sauce. It would need something to enrich it, though, and goat cheese would provide a tang and a welcome thickness. There. I had my dish.

Though this definitely took me more than the twenty minutes allotted on the show (could I have done it in time if pressed? Maybe… with a much bigger mess…), it came together well. It’s hard to fault pork sausage cooked with aromatic vegetables, especially when it gets mounded with panko soaked in what seems like an excessive amount of oil and baked until feverishly crispy. At first taste we weren’t sure the sauce matched the mushrooms – the roasted red pepper has such a strong vegetal clarity that, blended down and even spiked with hot sauce, it can stand up to and overpower its supporting players. Yet we kept going back to it, sliding the mushroom caps through and dotting on another spoonful, and when we each tried a mushroom bare, it was good, but we wanted that kick from the bright, orange-red smear left on the plate. Ultimately I think the sauce was on the right track, but needed a little something to combat the overly heavy vegetal quality, so the recipe below cuts the pepper-forward flavor with the addition of broth. I suspect this will help it meld with the mushrooms better.

We tried out two serving options, just to see which we preferred: a puddle of sauce topped with a few stuffed caps, and a row of caps drizzled with sauce. Though we decided the puddle of sauce on the bottom would be better for hors d’oeuvres that were going to sit around for any length of time, as the sauce-on-top styling could damage the pristine and glorious crispness of the panko topping, we preferred the sauce-on-top delivery method as both prettier and easier to eat. In either case, a final dusting of parsley made for a prettier presentation and a welcome little herbal freshness to the bite.

* Photo note: this week, as I wait for my new machine, I’m using the editing features on Preview on my laptop. I’m… underwhelmed. Le sigh.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce
Makes 12 mushroom caps + extra sauce
40-45 minutes
For mushrooms:
12 large crimini mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup finely minced onion
½ cup finely minced red bell pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sprig thyme, optional
8 ounces bulk pork sausage
¼ – ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
For sauce:
6 ounces roasted red pepper (you can do it yourself, of course, but the jars are so quick and easy)
3-4 ounces goat cheese
3-4 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons sriracha, or to taste
To serve:
chopped parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and place a wire cooling rack in a baking tray or cookie sheet – we are making a slightly elevated platform for the mushrooms to prevent waterlogging.
  • Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the gills and some of the innards from each of your mushroom caps. We need lots of room for filling. Finely chop the “guts” you’ve removed.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushroom pieces (not the caps), the onion, the red bell pepper, and the thyme sprig, if using. Season with black pepper if you like that sort of thing, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are tender, around 5-7 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, place the hollowed out mushroom caps stem side down on the cooling rack and place into the oven. This gets them started cooking and allows some of the water they will expel to drain right into the cookie sheet. Cook them until the sausage is done.
  • When the vegetables in your skillet are looking tender, add the sausage and use a wooden, flat-sided spoon or spatula to break it up. Continue to cook over medium heat, breaking up the sausage and stirring often, until the meat is just cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes for easier handling. (Reminder: at this point you should also remove your mushroom caps from the oven!)
  • While the sausage cools, toss the panko and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • When you are ready to fill, flip the mushroom caps over so the hollow side faces up. If you want, you can move each and lightly spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray; they do start to cling a little bit while baking.
  • Fill the mushroom caps with heaping spoonfuls of the filling, lightly but firmly packing it in. It will be a little crumbly, so be determined but not rough, as that can break the delicate mushroom caps. Top each filled cap with a mound of panko, then carefully place back into the oven to bake at 400F for 15 minutes.
  • While the mushrooms cook, make the sauce. Using a standard or an immersion or stick blender, whiz together the roasted red pepper, the goat cheese, and the broth until very smooth. Pour into a pan (I used the same skillet I’d cooked my vegetables and sausage in, just wiped clean with a paper towel), add the sriracha (start with just 2 teaspoons; you can always add more) and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Simmer about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.
  • To serve, either spread a puddle of sauce on the platter and place the mushrooms on top of it, or arrange the mushrooms on a platter and then drizzle sauce over each. Both are pretty. Either way, sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top to add freshness, and serve warm.
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Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs

I have to admit, this meatball is a bit of a cheat. I mean, when it comes right down to it, this is a breakfast sausage patty, spiked with small chunks of apple and onion sautéed in butter, slivers of sage, and a generous glug or two of maple syrup. And plenty of black pepper, of course. I know, what’s to complain about there? But essentially, it’s just that, rolled into a meatball form instead of flattened into a patty. I’ve made this a number of times already as a sausage patty, and the simple change feels a bit dishonest – a bit like a masquerade. But the thing is, it allows me to tell you about an event for which I feel a great deal of fondness. So consider this a cheat with good intentions. An excuse, let’s say, to tell you about a time of warmth which, as the winter rolls on, might be something you need.

(Additionally, as I’ve recently noticed, sorry about the lousy photo quality on the in-post photos. I’m thinking this is largely due to artificial lighting, which makes maybe one good thing about that whole Daylight Saving Time curse that has fallen upon us, but also might be a WordPress thing, because if you click on the image for a larger version, it looks clearer and higher quality – more like the original shot.)

Food Blog March 2015-0431The apple and onion in these meatballs (or patties) play very well with the sage and the fatty pork, and the maple syrup results in stellar caramelization, while giving a nod to the “breakfast” idea. This combination was so successful at home in some trial runs and at a summer gathering last July that I broke it out again this January. One of my dearest family friends, a young woman I’ve known so long it feels strange to acknowledge that she is, in fact, a young woman rather than a kid, got married in November, in Chile. She and her now-husband’s Southern Hemisphere nuptials meant that only a small handful of her American friends and family were able to attend. In January, then, while many of us were still off work for the holiday, they had a “stateside celebration” in northern California, which N. and I thankfully were able to attend.

Food Blog March 2015-0420The bride’s mother, whose capacity for party planning is unparalleled, rented a house for the weekend for the “kids” to stay in, and as the oldest members of that no-longer-accurate category, N. and I somehow got in under the age wire and hung out with the “young people” at the party house. This allowed for opportunities like feeding (fat, greedy, possibly possessed) miniature ponies who happen to live on the grounds, wandering an impressive, decked-out-for-Christmas back garden, exclaiming over the proliferation of strange decor choices in the house (lots of religious imagery, a fully decorated Christmas tree in every room of the house, a large rocking horse at the foot of our bed, Victorian and Rococo linens and bathroom paintings, modern art pieces contributed by grateful former guests, a fur stole my sister briefly considered wearing to the party), and riding to and from the event itself in an aesthetically impressive but poorly stocked limousine, my first limo ride ever. (Really, this house was amazing. A Secret Garden/Windsor Mystery House of a place, and we were so lucky to get to experience it).

Food Blog March 2015-0423To offer my thanks, of course I turned to food, offering to cook breakfast for all of the “kids” on the morning of the marriage blessing ceremony. This offer was met with enthusiastic approval, and so my sister and I got up early(ish) and set about finding the least battered tools in the kitchen (it contained an astounding variety of dishes and utensils, but as you might expect of a rental property, many were not well maintained) to make breakfast-for-eight. Among the offerings were these same sausage patties, which were met with considerable acclaim. There were no leftovers.

Food Blog March 2015-0425I realize this is not much about meatballs, but for me, food is so tied to the people I’m feeding and the events surrounding its production that they become part of the taste. These people we were celebrating are so dear to me, and became so with such haste, that I can’t remember a time I didn’t think of them as an extension of my family. She was my bridesmaid when I married, and now at the celebration of her own marriage, it felt so tied to my own declarations of love and familial belonging. As I said when I offered my toast at their reception – while remarking on the tendency my eyes suddenly had at trying, on their own, to alleviate California’s massive drought – there has never been a time when I was not so, so happy to see them. This has been true from the very first time we met (it was raining then, too, relieving this poor parched state once again, as the now-bride’s father welcomed us in with the shout “We’re having a rain party!”), till that evening, surrounded by others they love, who love them.

Food Blog March 2015-0430This is all a bit tumbling and confessional and warm, but I know you’re really here for the meatballs, so let’s get to it. All I’ve done is taken the same ingredients from my sausage patties and rolled them into a meatball, rather than flattening them for the pan. But really, they are perfect either way. They are one of those offerings that, even if they get a little dark on the bottoms from the sugars in the maple syrup (and they may, so don’t despair), they are gobbled up willingly. And even if they stay in the pan a bit too long because you are taking the time to catch up with family who re friends who are family, they stay moist thanks to the apple and onion threaded through them. They are a standby indulgence. I hope they become that for you as well.

Serving suggestions: as you can see, we had ours alongside a fluffy pile of scrambled eggs and some well toasted crumpets. They would also be perfect stuffed inside a pillowy buttermilk biscuit as a fancy little breakfast sandwich bite, and I certainly wouldn’t say no to a pyramid of them gracing a belgian waffle or two. In short, pick your breakfast favorite, and add these.

 

Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs
Serves 2-3 (but is easily doubled or even tripled)
2 tablespoons butter
⅔ cup diced green apple (about half a medium apple)
⅔ cup diced red onion (about half a small onion)
⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons sage (sage is strong!)
8 ounces pork sausage
2 tablespoons maple syrup

 

  • Heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add apples and onions, season with ⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper, and cook over medium or medium-low heat until tender: 5-8 minutes.
  • In the last 30 seconds or so of cooking, add the sage and stir to integrate. Then remove from heat and let cool until room temperature or barely warm.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the sausage, maple syrup, and cooled apple and onion mixture. This is already seasoned, thanks to the salty sausage, the sweet syrup, and the salt and pepper added to the cooked apples and onions. If you like a heavy hand with the seasonings, though, feel free to add an additional ⅛ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
  • Using moistened fingertips, mix well until apple and onion pieces are evenly distributed. Moisten the palms of your hands as well, then gently roll mixture into 10-12 equal sized balls – it will be soft.
  • Heat the same skillet you used for the apple and onion over medium heat and gently add the meatballs evenly spaced, not touching each other. Cook over medium heat until browned on all sides – about 3 minutes per side – then cover the skillet with a lid and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let sizzle until meatballs are cooked all the way through – another 8-10 minutes. If the bottoms of the meatballs begin to look a bit on the dark side, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan.
  • Serve hot or warm with breakfast foods of your fancy.

Pizza and Beer

Food Blog March 2013-0802Sometimes, a week calls for pizza.  But you don’t want the delivery variety dripping with grease and lazy with a smattering of mix-n-match toppings.  You want something fresher.  Better.  You want the feel of dough you can stretch under your hands and control over the size and shape of the pie and choice in the quality and variety of ingredients.

Homemade pizza.

N. and I have often talked about pizza memories, and how, when we were kids, pizza just wasn’t the same without a side of root beer.  It had to be in one of those hard plastic molded glasses, and it had to be with a clear straw.  And sometimes, you forgot you’d ordered root beer instead of Coke or Pepsi, and that first gulp with its spicy depth would be a tremendous surprise.

As we got older, the “root” part of the equation melted, and suddenly it was pizza and beer, plain and simple, one of the mother food and beverage combinations (is that a thing?  Like mother sauces?  It should be.  After all, beer is the third most popular beverage worldwide, and variations on pizza have been around since ancient Greece).

As I thought my way through this pizza plan this week, I wondered whether they had to be separate.  I mean, yeast makes bread dough and beer possible.  Beer is liquid, and there seemed no logical reason why it couldn’t be substituted for the water I’d ordinarily use to make a pizza crust.

Once this idea was lodged in my head, it wouldn’t go away.  This just seemed too perfect.  Beer and pizza, kneaded together – a truly complete meal.

Even though beer is essentially water with yeast and flavorings, I wasn’t sure what would happen when I mixed the two.  I heated a bottle of amber ale in the microwave with a couple teaspoons of honey, just until it was body temperature.  When I added the yeast and engaged the lightest of stirs, the whole measuring cup erupted with bubbles and I had a head at least three inches high.  This slowly collapsed, but I took it to mean the yeast was satisfied with its new spa treatment.

Food Blog March 2013-0772I used a combination of bread flour and whole wheat flour, and produced a spectacularly nutty tasting dough that was also the stickiest I’ve ever worked with.  It slithered and dripped off of my stand mixer’s dough hook and plopped thickly into the oiled bowl I coaxed it into, and I crossed my fingers and hoped that after its six hour chill in the fridge it turned into pizza crust.

Food Blog March 2013-0777When I liberated it and faced it again, it wasn’t the easiest dough to work with, but it did work.  It wouldn’t deign to be tossed like a pizzeria pie, but I stretched and spread and pushed it across a cookie sheet liberally spread with cornmeal, and it turned into a rustic, bubbly, delicious crust.  Topped with mozzarella, sausage, and sun-dried tomatoes, it baked into a glorious symphony of assertive flavors.  We sprinkled on a few leaves of fresh basil while it was still steaming hot, and declared it one of my best homemade pizzas. Food Blog March 2013-0780This is a sticky, wet dough, but it works.  I’m going to make it again and tweak the quantities of flour and olive oil, but trust me: this is worth fooling with for the flavor alone.  The beer comes through right at the end of each bite as a deep yeasty earthiness.  It lends the tiniest bit of bitter flavor that contrasts really well with the fatty sausage and tart sun-dried tomato.  And really, why shouldn’t it?  It’s beer, and this is pizza.  They were made to be together.

Food Blog March 2013-0797

Beer-crust pizza

12 oz. beer (I used an amber ale.  I think a darker brew would be even better)

2 tsp honey

2 tsp yeast

¼ cup olive oil

2 ½ cups bread flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp salt

¼-½ tsp black pepper Food Blog March 2013-0774

Heat the beer and honey in the microwave (or a small saucepan) until the liquid is body temperature – you should feel only the slightest heat when you dip in a curious finger.  This took about 45 seconds in the microwave for me.  It will take longer if your beer has been refrigerated.

Swirl the mixture to distribute the honey, then sprinkle the yeast over the surface and set it aside for 5 minutes.  If you stir the yeast in, you will get a tremendous amount of foam on the surface, so in case of overflow I think it’s better to just let it sit.

While you wait for the yeast to perk up, combine the flours, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.

When the yeast and beer have married to create a thick foam, stir in the olive oil, then add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients.  Using the paddle attachment (if you are using a stand mixer), combine at low speed just until ingredients come together into a rough, uneven dough.  Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes.

This dough will not pass the windowpane test.  It will not even stay together particularly well.  It will seem like an exercise in futility and disaster, and you will be sorely tempted to add more flour.  But if you resist, and plop it into an oiled bowl, and cover that bowl with plastic-wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, it will turn into something more like normal pizza dough.  I promise.

Food Blog March 2013-078390 minutes before you intend to bake, take the bowl of dough out of the fridge and set it on the counter to finish rising and come to room temperature.  After this time has passed, and the dough is considerably increased in size (it may not quite double, unless your counter is quite warm), stretch it to your desired shape – it easily makes a thick 9×13” rectangular crust, and might be coaxed into 2 medium sized, somewhat thin round crusts – on a cornmeal or flour speckled board or tray.  I just doused my cookie tray with cornmeal and pressed and pushed the dough directly on it until I was happy with the shape.

Food Blog March 2013-0789Food Blog March 2013-0786Food Blog March 2013-0792When adequately stretched, add toppings and bake in a preheated 450F oven for 12-15 minutes, or until puffed, crisp, and golden.  Wait 5 minutes before you cut it, to give the cheese time to congeal just a little.

Food Blog March 2013-0804We ate this in embarrassingly large squares and left enough in leftovers to serve as lunch the next day.  Cut slightly smaller and for slightly less voracious eaters (or if you add a side salad), this would be an adequate dinner for 4.