Autumn is really in the air these days here on the East Coast of the US. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and cool and redolent with the scent of freshly fallen leaves. The markets are full of all the wonderful produce of the season: curly chicory, radicchio, Belgian endive, chestnuts, a panoply of winter squashes. No wonder this is my favorite time of year.
And while you can buy cultivated mushrooms all year round, the fall is also the time you start to see a larger and more interesting variety of fresh mushrooms—if you’re lucky, even fresh porcini (also known and marketed by their French name, cèpes or by the botanic name, boletus edulis). Nothing says fall to me like a well-prepared mushroom dish.
In Italian cooking, mushrooms are often sliced, simply prepared and served either as a side dish, as for example in the case of funghi trifolati, or as an complement to pasta, gnocchi or risotto or even meat. But here is a dish where the mushroom—stuffed and roasted in the oven until golden brown—is the star. While usually served as an antipasto, when you make mushrooms this way, they take on an almost meaty flavor that is satisfying enough to serve as a (semi)-vegetarian main dish. If making them a main course, those extra-large mushrooms are best. If you can’t find porcini or if you don’t want to shell out for them, the easily found portobellos or another medium or large sized mushrooms with ‘character’ will do fine.
Ingredients (for 4 people)
5 extra-large porcinis (or portobellos)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 or 3 anchovy fillets, cut up into small pieces
Salt and pepper
1 or 2 slices of Italian or French bread, crusts removed and soaked in a bit of water or milk for a few minutes
Remove the stems from four of the mushrooms, and chop the stems up finely, together with the entire fifth mushroom. Take the four mushroom caps and set them upside down in a greased baking dish. Bake in a moderate oven (180°C/350°F) for about five minutes to dry them out slightly.
To make your stuffing, begin by sautéing the onion in a generous amount of olive oil until soft and translucent over gentle heat. Add the garlic, parsley and anchovy, and continue cooking for a few moments, just until you can smell the aroma of the garlic. Then add your chopped mushrooms, raising the heat a bit, and continue to sauté the mushrooms for 5 minutes or so, stirring frequently and seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. After you’re done, the mushrooms should have given up their juices and browned nicely. They will be much reduced in volume. Taste and adjust the mixture for seasoning; it should be very savory.
Transfer the mushroom mixture to a mixing bowl and let it cool a bit. Then add the bread, squeezed dry and crumbled in your hand, along with the egg. Mix everything together vigorously with a wooden spoon until everything is well incorporated and you have a uniform (if chunky) paste. (NB: You can ‘stretch’ this mixture, if you like, with more bread and egg.)
Season the mushroom caps with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with oil. Then fill the mushroom caps with the stuffing mixture, piling it up into a nice mound on top of each cap. Now sprinkle each stuffed mushroom cap with breadcrumbs (not too much) and drizzle with olive oil.
Place the caps back into the oven, at the same moderate temperature, and roast them for 20-30 minutes until they are cooked through and nicely brown on top. Check on them from time to time and, if you see juices in the bottom of the baking dish, use them to baste the mushroom caps. If you want, you can pass the mushrooms under the broiler for a few minutes at the end, which turns them a nice, golden brown.
Take the mushroom caps out of the oven, give them one last basting and let them cool for five minutes or so before serving.
NOTES: This recipe is adapted from the Bible of Italian home cooking, Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicità. As mentioned in my post, this quintessential book has a status in Italian households that The Joy of Cooking used to have in American ones, and almost every Italian kitchen has (or at least used to have) a copy. If you are ever in Italy and can read Italian, it is well worth picking up a copy. (There is an English language version, although somewhat abridged and a bit compromised by the addition of some Italian-American recipes, available in the US called The Talisman Italian Cookbook.) I picked my copy up while living in Rome, and it is still a constant source of information and inspiration all these years later.
The method is just the same using medium-sized mushrooms, calculating, say, 3 medium-sized ones for each extra-large one indicated in the recipe above. If you can’t find good Italian or French bread—one with good structure that won’t turn completely mushy when soaked, you can substitute a few spoonfuls of breadcrumbs for the bread, in which case you may need to add a drop of milk or an extra egg to loosen the stuffing. If you want to make this dish entirely vegetarian, you can omit the anchovies, but they do lend a certain savory—and not at all fishy—flavor. And, for those who are squeamish about anchovies or have family members who are, I can assure you that if you didn’t know, you would never guess this dish contained them.
Needless to say, there are many, many ways to stuff a mushroom. But I particularly like this method because it really emphasizes the ‘mushroominess’ of whatever mushroom you choose. And, as I mentioned, it brings out the meaty quality that mushrooms, especially larger ones like porcinis or portobellos, can have. I swear to you that this stuffing tastes to me of well-seasoned sausage.