My good friend Angela Heaston’s son Levi is a senior at Camas High School this year, which means that in addition to all the other things he’s got to do in order to graduate, he’s also busily at work on his senior project. He’s writing a cookbook aimed at college students and young adults who are adjusting to living on a budget, complete with price breakdowns. He’s done an enormous amount of research and is now in the process of compiling recipes that are not only inexpensive but also easy enough for even the most inexperienced cooks. I’ve been lucky to serve as the required community mentor on his project and have been absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of thought, effort, planning and research he’s put into this cookbook. Mostly, though, I’m really, really looking forward to reading (and trying) those recipes.
Because I’m not very patient, especially when it comes to tasty food, I asked Heaston if he would be so kind as to share one recipe from his stash, a sort of preview for things to come. After much pestering (very unfair of me, because he’s so busy, but this is food we’re talking about) he relented and gave me a recipe for stuffed mushrooms, aka mushroom poppers. He was careful to give credit to his mother, the originator of the recipe, which I thought was quite gentlemanly and charming.
I have never done a lot of things, like hike the Appalachian Trail, wrestle an alligator or learn how to accept an incoming call on my cellphone without accidentally hanging up on the person I’m already talking to. Life is hard and complicated. But another one of the things I’ve never done before is make stuffed mushrooms, which is a shame because it turns out that it’s effortless. It’s so easy that I seriously can’t figure out why I’ve never done it before, because easy things are my favorite, yet these little Agaricus bisporus are so delicious that the appetizer tastes like someone went to a lot of trouble. This recipe combines three ingredients that are all separately wonderful, so putting them together is a triple-level flavor explosion. Well, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole, but these stuffed mushrooms are pretty dang good. I made them as a weeknight appetizer and they were snapped up within a few minutes. The just sort of disappeared — poof! — into our mouths. I remember being shocked to look down and find my plate empty, like a magic trick had been performed. I was happy because they were so good and then I was sad because they were so gone.
Here’s how you can make your own mushroom magic:
Thoroughly wash a box of whole brown or white mushrooms. The ‘shrooms should be evenly sized and not too small because they have to be big enough to hold the fillings. Pat each mushroom dry — gently and lovingly, like drying a baby off after a bath — and then use your fingers to carefully get down inside the cap and pinch-twist the stems off. They should come out easily. If you crack a couple mushroom caps in the process, they should still be fine to use, as long as they aren’t in pieces. Set the stems aside to use in a soup, pasta sauce or salad or roast them right along with the stuffed mushrooms.
Arrange the mushrooms upside-down on a baking sheet. Next, cut cheddar cheese into little cubes, small enough to fit inside each mushroom cap, then (and I bet you can see this coming) put the cheese cubes inside the mushroom caps. Lastly, top each cheese-filled mushroom with a spoonful of salsa. Broil the mushrooms on high for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. It took only 7 minutes for my cheese to melt but you might need to broil your ’shrooms a little longer, depending on size. Serve them while they’re still warm, so that the gooey cheese can ooze around and blend with that tangy salsa.
What makes these mushrooms marvelous hardly needs elucidating, but I’ll break it down anyway: It’s the earthy, umami flavor of the mushrooms against the rich saltiness of the cheese and the tangy, spicy salsa. It’s got all the flavors that humans like and your favorite humans will like them too. The other thing that makes this recipe great is that it invites experimentation with different kinds of mushrooms, different kinds of cheeses and different salsas. I’d like to try it with a mellow Gouda or Muenster and a piquant salsa verde or even goat cheese and spicy chutney. Next time I might even top the mushrooms with panko bread crumbs for a little crunch to complement the pleasant pliancy of a well-cooked mushroom.
I don’t think you should save these mushrooms for a party. Make them for yourself or for yourself and your significant other, just because they’re yummy and because being alive to enjoy stuffed mushrooms is something to celebrate. You don’t need a reason to make a little mushroom magic.
I only hope that when Levi Heaston grows up to be rich and famous, as I’m positive he will, he remembers to thank me for my priceless assistance in taste-testing his recipes. And he absolutely must give credit to his mother.