When I was featured as Cook of the Week I shared that one of my family's favorite things to do is to have "snacks" or appetizers for dinner instead of traditional meat-potato-vegetables on the plate. More than 10 years later that dinner mash-up remains a special treat and a holiday tradition.
That article also featured one of my favorite recipes, Best Ever Stuffed Mushrooms, that was given to me by a dear friend BJ Boyd. All these years later it still holds the title "Best Ever" in my book; I've yet to taste a better stuffed mushroom -- and I've tried many.
Why stuff a mushroom? According to my research, restaurants began serving stuffed mushrooms in the 1940s and 1950s when chefs co-opted an Italian recipe for stuffed zucchini blooms. Original versions called for spicy sausage or crabmeat while more modern fillings including everything from leftover stuffing and seasoned bread crumbs to gorgonzola and parmesan cheese to sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. While small white "button" mushrooms are an appetizer favorite, the giant stuffed portobello variety have become popular as entrees and side dishes too.
I still remember being at a holiday gathering and BJ passionately asking me, "Did you try one of my stuffed mushrooms? They are the best!" Up until this point I had not eaten a stuffed mushroom that made me want to have second. That all changed after trying one of BJ's. The creamy, savory filling topped with crunchy bread crumbs is unlike any other I had ever experienced and they disappeared almost as soon as they were placed on the buffet table, an obvious hit at the party.
Cream cheese, dried ranch dip mix and parmesan cheese are whirled in a food processor with dehydrated onions, parsley and a little milk to make the mixture a little creamy. I found the easiest way to maneuver the cheese mixture into the mushroom caps is to load it into a pastry bag and pipe generous amount into each cap. If you don't have a pastry bag handy, use a disposable plastic bag and just cut a small corner off to create a quick and easy pastry bag. A small spoon will also do the trick; the important thing is to make sure you are not stingy with the cheese. Next, fill a small bowl with the seasoned stuffing mix and gently dip the filled mushroom in to receive their crunchy topping. Drizzle melted butter over the caps and bake until hot and browned. If you are like me you will try at least one right out of the oven, not because you crave the delicious morsels, but to check the temperature of course -- well maybe.
These mushrooms hold a special place on both our appetizer table and in my heart as sadly my dear friend BJ lost her courageous battle with cancer last year. Still, every time I make these I can hear her saying "Pen, you have to try these!"
I hope this recipe entices you to also take her advice and try stuffed mushrooms. I'm confident they fill find a place on your holiday appetizer buffet, or maybe even your dinner plate.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge.