Portabella burgers a grill sensation

Texture and flavor make mushrooms a great, low-calorie alternative to beef

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Meaty tasting and low in calories, portabella mushrooms are a great alternative to a beef burger.

What makes them ideal as burgers is their size and texture. But they also work well grilled or broiled, served on sandwiches or sliced on salads.

Portabellas are basically an overgrown variation of the common button mushroom. They can be very large, about 5 to 6 inches in diameter, although many stores now carry mini bellas, about 3 inches in diameter, and porteenies, which are even smaller.

It was in 1980 that the name portabella started to be used as a "brilliant marketing ploy to popularize an unglamorous mushroom," according to "The Food Lover's Companion" (Barron's, $16.99) by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Portabellas have a meaty texture because their gills are exposed, which gives them a low-moisture content.

Many recipes call for removing the gills before cooking. It can be simply a matter of preference, but it also can be because the spores released from the gills during cooking will discolor other ingredients that are mixed in. So remove the gills when making a mushroom soup or using portabellas in, say, risotto or other rice or pasta dish.

If you're stuffing the portabellas, it's also a good idea to remove the gills and stems to make room for the stuffing.

In this portabella burger recipe, the gills are removed so they won't darken the cheese, but it's not totally necessary. Use a spoon to easily scrape out and remove them.

Here's the basic preparation for grilling portabellas:

Prepare: Remove and discard the stems and scrape out the gills. Wipe caps clean with a damp paper towel.

Season: Brush both sides of the mushroom caps with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea or kosher salt and black pepper.

Grill: Preheat the grill to medium-high. Place mushrooms, top side down, and grill four minutes. Turn over and grill an additional two to four minutes or until the caps are tender.

In today's recipe, the portabellas are topped with tangy blue cheese and caramelized red onions. Serve them on a lightly toasted bun. Match the buns to the size of the mushrooms before grilling, keeping in mind that the portabellas will shrink a little. If you add a thick slice of tomato and peppery arugula, your guests won't ask "Where's the beef?"

Portabella Blue Cheese Burgers

Makes: 4. Preparation time: 15 minutes. Total time: 1 hour

Adapted from Eating Well magazine, May/June 2012 issue, Tested by Susan Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen.

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

3 cloves garlic, peeled, pressed

4 large (about 4-5 inches in diameter) portabella mushrooms, wiped clean, stems removed

1 large red onion, peeled, thinly sliced (2 ½ to 3 cups)

2 tablespoons water

¼ cup ruby port or favorite sweet red wine

½ teaspoon salt, divided

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided

½ cup crumbled blue cheese (2 ounces)

4 whole-wheat hamburger buns or favorite bun or roll

1 cup arugula

4 thick slices tomato

In a small bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons oil, vinegar and garlic. Brush the mixture all over the mushrooms and let stand for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add red onion and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add water and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is browned and very soft, about 15 minutes. Add port and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, about 3 minutes more. Stir in ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Remove from the heat and cover.

Preheat grill to medium.

Sprinkle the mushrooms with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Grill, gill side down, for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn over and top each with 2 tablespoons cheese. Grill until the mushrooms are tender, 4 to 5 minutes more.

Toast buns. Divide the onions among the mushrooms. Serve (cheese side up) on buns with arugula and tomato slices.

Note: Gorgonzola is a good substitute for blue cheese. You can also use a milder cheese such as fontina or asiago.

Nutrition information per serving: 339 calories (45% from fat), 17 grams fat (5 grams sat. fat), 37 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 702 mg sodium, 11 mg cholesterol, 5 grams fiber.