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Recipes and Stories

17 October 2014: Mushrooms with Sausage-Bourbon Filling

Small Brown (also called crimini, "baby bella" and golden Italian) mushrooms are ideal candidates for stuffing with savory fillings, so long as the cook doesn't get carried away with the idea of being "interesting" with the filling.

Stuffed mushrooms come and go in popularity, but never seem to go out of style in Savannah. Anytime they appear on the cocktail buffet table, they disappear quickly. They’re so popular, in fact that I’ve always wished I could be more enthusiastic about them, especially since mushrooms are one of my favorite things. But while stuffing mushrooms with savory fillings is a great idea for a finger-food spread, most of the time the execution is a disappointment. They’re either too bland to be interesting or too interesting to be good.

The secret to really good stuffed mushrooms is to choose the right kind of fungi, make sure they’re reasonably fresh, and fill them with compatible flavors. White mushrooms (sometimes labeled as “button” mushrooms or champignons) are the most commonly used for stuffing, but they’re too mild for stuffing and are easily overwhelmed, especially by a lot of spice and cheese. Brown (“crimini”) mushrooms are better suited to stronger flavors, but even they can be overwhelmed when one gets carried away with spice and strong cheese.

The stuffing that follows is made with the mushroom stems, mild breakfast sausage, and onions, underpinned by a judicious dose of sage, spice, and bourbon whiskey. It’s assertive enough to be interesting but not so assertive that it cancels out the mushroom.

The process of stuffing the caps is a little time consuming, but not difficult, particularly if you apply the filling with a small portion scoop.

Stuffed mushrooms are traditionally served at parties as finger food, but these also make a fine first course or side dish for almost any poultry, pork, or veal dish that does not already contain mushrooms.

Serves 6 as a first course, 8–10 as an hors d’oeuvre

24 medium crimini (sometimes labeled golden-brown or baby portobello) mushrooms
½ pound bulk breakfast sausage
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and minced
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
1 tablespoon fresh sage or 1/2 teaspoon dried sage (omit if sausage contains sage)
¼ cup bourbon
½ cup heavy cream (minimum 36% milkfat)
1 cup dry bread crumbs
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater

1. Wipe the mushrooms with a dry cloth and snap off the stems. Lightly butter a baking pan that will comfortably hold the mushrooms and put the caps on it, stem-side up. Chop the stems.

2. Crumble the sausage into a skillet or sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Sauté, crumbling it with a spatula, until it has lost its raw red color. Add the onion and continue sautéing until golden, about 5–8 minutes. Add the chopped stems and sauté for a minute more, then add the garlic and optional sage and sauté until fragrant, about another half minute. Slowly pour in the bourbon and let it completely evaporate. Add the cream, bring it to a boil, and turn off the heat.

3. Stir in the bread crumbs, then taste and season as needed with salt, a few grindings of pepper, and a generous grating of nutmeg. Fill the stem cavity of the mushroom caps with this mixture, mounding it up until all the filling is used. You can make the mushrooms a couple of hours ahead to this point; cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to bake them.

4. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Bake the mushrooms until the caps are tender and the top of the filling is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Serve hot, but if they are to be eaten as finger food, let them cool enough to be picked up with the fingers.

Recipe and essay adapted from Essentials of Southern Cooking: Techniques & Flavors of a Classic American Cuisine (Lyons Press), copyright 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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