Stuffed mushrooms closeup

“Not Your Classic” Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffed mushrooms on waxed paperI love mushrooms.  But I don’t love most stuffed mushrooms.  I have a problem with the consistency of the “classic version” (a paste), and if they aren’t right out of the oven, the consistency is even more troubling on its way toward cold.  So I made a “unclassic”–not to be confused with unclassy–version of stuffed mushrooms.  Un-blended, un-mushed, and un-pasty.  Your taste buds won’t will be un-happy.

Because I originally made this appetizer for a party, and there’s quite a bit of prep work, I made more than you would need on a normal night.  If you’re only serving a few people–or just yourself–you can still do the prep but only bake what you need and store the rest in the fridge.  Two days later, my leftover prepped mushrooms were still just as delicious as the first day.

Store extra mushrooms in fridge until ready to bake

Store extra mushrooms in fridge until ready to bake

For serving at a party, only bake as many as will be eaten right away, then bake as needed.  Note:  If you use a pre-heated toaster oven, you may only need to bake them for 10 minutes…they’re done when you see sizzling juice around the mushrooms and the cheese is melted/golden.  While the mushrooms are cooling, transfer them to paper towels or other material to soak up excess liquid to prevent mushiness from setting in (or juices squirting out when you take a bite!).  You could also line a basket or tray with a napkin or waxed paper and serve them that way.  Note for party planning:  The bigger the mushrooms, the harder it is to eat in one bite, which is what you want for a finger food menu.  

If you or your guests don’t eat pork, make sure you use quality thyme and add any other spices if needed to boost flavor.

Stuffed mushrooms closeup

Recipe for “Not Your Classic” Stuffed Mushrooms

  • Yields approximately 35 stuffed mushrooms
  • Prep time: 45 minutes
  • Bake time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3 packages (8 ounces each) mushrooms – I used the button/white variety, but cremini mushrooms work too
  • 2 pieces bacon, nitrate/nitrite-free
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ cup minced shallots (about 1 large)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 large cloves)
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • sea salt, to taste
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • shaved/shredded parmesan cheese, enough for a pinch on top of each mushroom

Directions:

 

Fry bacon in large pan until crispy, then remove and let cool.  While bacon is cooking, clean mushrooms with damp cloth.   Separate mushroom stems from caps, being careful not to tear the caps.  Finely chop stems.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  Add olive oil to bacon fat left behind from cooking and saute stems and shallots over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring often.  Add garlic, a couple pinches of salt, a few twists of pepper, and thyme, cooking for 2 more minutes.  Turn off heat and stir in parsley and finely chopped bacon.  Taste and add spices if necessary.  Toss mushroom caps with olive oil.  Use small spoon to stuff stem mixture into mushroom caps.  Press curved outside of spoon down into mixture to pack in.  Don’t overstuff.  Top each cap with a pinch of parmesan.  Bake 20-25 minutes on baking sheet.  Transfer mushrooms to paper towels or cloth while cooling to soak up excess liquid.

Affinity For Swine: It’s A Matter Of The Heart, Part 2

This is the continuation of my interview with Executive Chef Anthony Prontelli.  If you missed the first part, click here.

There’s a pig-roasting pit in your backyard, which you yourself built. Correct, seven-foot round.  How long did it take to build? Altogether, probably about 15-16 hours put into it.  And how big of a pig does it hold? An 80 lb. pig.  When did you break it in? First night!  Not with a pig, just a bonfire at night, had the neighbors over with a couple bottles of wine.  But I had about 30 people over first weekend of October, which kind of now has become my annual pig roast….I had a 37 lb. Kurobuta black pig that cooked for 12 hours.  How does it’s meat taste? It’s fattier than regular pork…it would be like the Kobe beef of pork, so the meat has more flavor.  Has a higher fat content, so it’s a lot juicier.  Originally, they’re Japanese, but this one came out of Pennsylvania.  It’s a whole process of raising them.  The whole concept is the happier the pig, the better the meat will taste.

Do you have a favorite recipe involving pork? No, I don’t.  One of the ones I like the best would probably be the fresh pappardelle pasta with the suckling pig that we [at Rock Center Cafe] have done on the menu.  Just because it’s such a long process to doing it, it’s really start to finish, and it’s just an outstanding product.  I made Head Cheese for the first time.  We were playing around with a couple [pig] heads in the kitchen…that was fun.  I kind of like doing different things with it, just because it’s so versatile.  So no favorite family recipes? No…there are plenty of family recipes, I don’t follow any though.  I take the concept of it, like the concept of making the Head Cheese–my uncle makes it in Italy–so I knew the process that he did.  I didn’t do it as a cold-cut, as it normally would be.  I diced it all up and put it in mason jars and used them more as a spreadable item instead of a sliced, cold-cut item.  Obviously they’re all old-school recipes, which–there’s nothing wrong with it–but I try to put a new spin on it, make it more acceptable.  You tell someone it’s Head Cheese and they see, like, chunks of fat, you know, an ear, a snout.  A little bit harder to swallow.  You try to make it more mainstream for people. Correct.

How much pork do you eat in a week, do you think? (Laughs.) Poundage?  No, that’s okay!  Just tell me how often you eat it. I would say, I probably eat pork everyday.  In some form or another.  Probably two or three times a day.  You’re a pretty lean guy, how do you keep your figure? My girlish figure? (Laughs.) I don’t sit down.  I’m very active.  Whether I’m here, 10-12 hours on my feet, or I’m home, I do a lot of things around the house.  Are you a nibbler or do you actually sit and have [substantial] meals? I nibble.  I think the only time I sit down and have square meals is when I go out for dinner or on my one day off, obviously I’m with my family, and we have dinner [at home]…here, it’s pick here, pick there.

Is this just a pork-lovin’ phase?  Or will you always have an affinity for pork? No, I was brought up on pork.  Every meal ended with cheese and some kind of pork product.  Whether it was prosciutto, sopressata, cacciatorini, always.  That was the ending of every meal.  So you have an emotional connection to pork? Yeah, I definitely do.  I mean, it’s always been in my family.  I remember as a child, my father used to bring home testa in cassetta which is Head Cheese–literally means “head in the box”–and it was wow, it was disgusting, I wouldn’t eat it.  Now I love it.  Obviously you grow into things….We had pork, probably at least twice a day.  [During] the holiday times you had big antipasti spreads…my father used to make sausage when I was a child, we always had it.

As a child (growing up in the Bronx) did your family buy ingredients the day of making something?  Was there a lot of natural, fresh food around? Fresh.  It was important.  My mom shopped everyday, she had her garden.  It wasn’t a huge garden…but she had enough room for her lettuce and her tomatoes and her herbs.  I never had canned tomato sauce.  It was sacrilege.  I’ve never had soup out of a can…they didn’t exist in my house.  We grew up where my mom would cook for us three meals a day, we didn’t go out to eat a lot.  It was home-cooked meals every day.  Cans of SpaghettiOs would never find its way into my house now, or in my mother’s house.  She still makes little tortellinis and raviollis, she’ll sit there and bang out like 700 tortellini–because we like tortellini soup–and she makes two or three piles each and we go over there and pick them up.  It’s definitely a different lifestyle being brought up that way.  I think you appreciate things more.  My parents came here from Italy…you lived off the land.  You raised pigs, rabbits, chickens–for food.  You farmed your land for food…that’s how they were raised, so that’s how they raised us.  So freshest of ingredients is very important.  Everyday my mother went to the store, everyday.  She bought what she needed for the day and that was it.  I think that kind of plays a part in what I do and how I look at things.

So did your mom, and the way you grew up, get you interested in cooking…becoming a chef? Yes.  Meals, in my family, weren’t just nourishment to eat, they were gatherings.  That’s how we get together and that’s how we talk.  And between me and my brother and my sister, we try to keep that alive, like with the holidays.  I’m always having people over, when I’m home.  Even if it’s just “come over” and we put some cheese and sopressata on the table, couple bottles of wine and hang out and b.s. all night.  It’s more of a bonding thing and a sharing thing.  I can go back to some of my best memories with my dad, he’s been passed away for many years.  [For example] Christmas Eve–big holiday to begin with, big seafood night.  So we’d do the seafood thing and then we’d all go to midnight mass, come back, go to my parent’s house and open presents.  And me, my brother-in-law, and my dad, we’d be up until 4:00, 5:00 in the morning.  Drinking wine, cognac…so we’d come back from midnight mass around 2:00 in the morning and my mother would be like, “Okay, what do you guys want to eat?”  Whether it was dessert or some snacks, food was there and it’s always been a part of my family.  So growing up like that, I saw it, I wanted to do it [cook].  I went more for the cooking end of it instead of the baking end of it because…it’s more free.  Baking is more of a science [with the ingredients and measurements].  With cooking it’s more winging it, it’s more of a creative outlet [for me] in the sense that there is more freedom to experiment.

Anthony Prontelli has been the Executive Chef at Rock Center Cafe in New York City’s famous Rockefeller Center since 2000.  He received his degree at The Culinary Institute of America.  He is completely devoted to the sus domestica, a.k.a., the domestic pig.

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Affinity For Swine: It’s A Matter Of The Heart

As today is National Pig Day, I think it’s appropriate to share this interview with a chef who truly appreciates the pig. I split this interview into two posts because of its length.  Make sure to come back tomorrow to read the second part!

“The chef really likes pork, doesn’t he?”  This remark comes from my customer as he returns the menu after ordering.  “Yes, he certainly does,” I reply.  We do have a plethora of pork items on our menu at any given time.  There may be pork chops, braised pork cheeks, bacon hash, brussels sprouts with bacon, mixed vegetables with bacon, various pastas with bacon, pork tenderloin…must I go on? I’m surprised Chef Anthony Prontelli hasn’t snuck pork products into a dessert yet.  Or…has…he?  I’ve always been amused by, and curious of, his pork obsession.  My co-workers and I often make joking comments, especially on the debut of new menus, which never fail to highlight swine, as if it were divine.  Chef’s answer is always, “Bacon makes everything taste better.”  True.  But his connection goes far deeper than I ever would have imagined.  Chef Anthony takes time out of his hectic schedule to help me snout out the dirt on why pork gets him squealing.

Let’s start with 3 words:  Swine Is Divine.  How does that make you feel and what does it mean to you? Outstanding!  I think everyone should eat pork.  Pork is one of those meats that is very under-appreciated by a lot of people….people think of pork when they were kids…where pork was that kind of a dry, shoe-leathery, no flavor product.  I think it’s come so far….it needs to be appreciated.  It’s probably the most versatile meat a chef could make because you can do everything from dry it to cure it to soak it to confit it, roast it, braise it.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about pork? Years ago, probably back in the 50’s and 60’s, pork was the meat to eat.  It beat out chicken, it beat out beef…pork was the way to go.  Then I think in the 70’s, chicken made this huge comeback and took over everything.  Really wiped pork out.  So all the pork companies came up with this big promotion, “The other white meat.”  They re-engineered [the way they were raising pork] so it was 30% less fat, so they could compete with chicken.  The problem with doing that is they dried it all up…took the fat out…less marbling in the meat…so you got flavorless, dry pork.  That, and people think you still have to have pork well-done.

You’re Tuscan.  Is your obsession an inherited phenomenon?  Are many Tuscans enamored with pork? Yes.  You can do so much with it.  From snout to tail, you waste absolutely nothing.  So pork is very big in Italy, obviously….prosciutto, pancetta, sopressata, cacciatorini…it’s all made out of pork.  Pigs were a very big item to have because they were so useful.  Porks eat whatever you give them to eat.  In Italy, we used to have pigs.  The pigs ate whatever we didn’t eat at dinnertime.  So they ate healthy, healthier.  Because they ate human-grade food. Exactly.

Would you have a pig as a pet?  Or would you be too tempted to eat him? No, I would [have a pig as a pet], those little teacup pigs?  They’re cute as hell.  When I have money to waste, I want to open up a pig farm.  A real, high-end pig farm, kind of going along with the Berkshire, Kurobuta pork…top-notch pork.  The great part about pigs is whatever you feed them, that’s the flavor the meat takes on.  If you feed them nuts, your meat is nutty.  If you feed them fruit, it’ll be a little bit sweeter.  Which is great because you can literally gear it to how you want your pig to taste.

What’s the craziest think you’ve ever done in the name of pork? Meaning….? Um…Okay, well, your tattoo? It’s not an image you see everyday on someone’s body.  How did it happen? It evolved a little bit.  I definitely wanted to get a tattoo of a pig.  Obviously I enjoy cooking pork and eating pork.  I thought I might as well give it a testament.  So it was either going to be this or I was going to do the actual diagram of a pig, kind of sectioned off into portions.  And have them all written in Italian, which I still might do later on.  None of my other tattoos are playful or colorful, you know, they’re just more serious.  This one is more of a cartoon, it’s playful.  This is “I’m king.”  So it’s not “I’m stuffed and I’m on your plate,” but “nobody’s better than me.”  And I think he [the artist] portrayed that well.  What do your family members, friends, and co-workers think about your tattoo?  Are they teasing you or giving you hi-fives? Most of the people here [at the restaurant] think it’s cool.  They laugh, they think it’s funny.  My kids think it’s funny, they can’t understand why I tattooed a pig on me, but they think it’s funny.  My neighbor kind of looked at me a little strange (laughs), but I think he knows my infatuation with pork.  I think for the most part it’s pretty well received and if they know me, they understand.

In Part 2, you’ll learn more about Chef Prontelli’s experience with fresh natural food, his background, and of course, his love for the pig.


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Bacon Cheddar Popcorn

Photo by K.C. © 2010 Kristin Conroy

Bacon.  Yum!  Cheddar. Yes, please! Bacon and cheddar on popcorn? Whoa. Our reactions:  Eyes closed in appreciation.  Sighs of delight. Hands immediately dove back into the bowl for more. Even our cat couldn’t keep his paws off it.  The bacon fat must have had some sort of residual life energy because we began acting like pigs. We couldn’t get the popcorn into our mouths fast enough.  And I think we even snorted and squealed a little.  Embarrassing, yes, but a testament to how incredible it tastes.  A word of advice:  Don’t eat this popcorn when you’re ravenously hungry! Why?  After tasting it, you’ll try to eat it all yourself. Don’t.  Restrain yourself.  It doesn’t look filling–it’s only fluffy popcorn after all–but the richness of the bacon catches up to you when the rate at which you’re inhaling the popcorn slows down.  And then you’ll feel slightly sick.  Believe me, I’m speaking from experience.  This recipe will probably be enough for 5-6 people snacking on it.  It’s not meant to be a meal for two.  Again, in our defense, it’s crazy good…you’ll see.

Photo by K.C. © 2010 Kristin Conroy

The basics of this recipe were shared with me by Anthony Prontelli, Executive Chef at Rock Center Cafe in Rockefeller Center.  I list a whole package of bacon in the ingredients in order to get enough bacon fat from it.  If you have bacon fat lying around–starting to sound like a great idea!–you’ll only need a few slices of bacon to crumble on top at the end.  I would recommend not leaving this popcorn out any longer than you would for other dishes containing bacon and cheese.

Yields about 16 cups popcorn

Ingredients

1 package (8 ounces) uncured, no nitrate/nitrite, antibiotic-free bacon  I used a smoked maple variety

Bacon fat, from cooked bacon (about 3 ounces)

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

Sharp, aged cheddar, finely grated

Sea salt, to taste (optional)

Method

  1. Cook bacon in a large skillet until browned and crisp enough to crumble.  Place slices on a plate with paper towels.  Save a few strips of bacon to crumble on top of the popcorn.  Put the rest away.  Drain bacon fat from skillet into a container or measuring cup for easy pouring.
  2. To pop popcorn: Pour bacon fat into a large heavy pot (one with handles on each side), only enough to coat the bottom.  Reserve the rest of fat for later on in the recipe.  Turn the heat to medium-high.  Add popcorn kernels, shake the pot to evenly distribute, and cover.  Leave the lid slightly askew to minimize condensation.  Get some oven mitts ready to avoid a really toasty situation.  When the kernels start popping, lift the pot about 2 inches above the flame.  Shake the pot every 10 seconds (make sure you’re thumbs have a good grip on that lid!) or so until the popping is reduced from fireworks to sputtering.  Place the pot on a cool burner and turn off the heat.  Keep the lid on until the popping stops to avoid any errant popcorn missiles to the face.
  3. Pour popcorn into a large bowl (or two) and drizzle with the remaining bacon fat.  Immediately sprinkle with cheese (and sea salt, if desired) and mix thoroughly.  Ideally, use a microplane to grate the cheese–giving you more of a powder than small pieces–so it will incorporate better with the popcorn. Top with bacon crumbles and mix only slightly to prevent all the bits from falling to the bottom of the bowl.

Try to keep the squealing to a minimum!