In an issue about the dark side of epicurean endeavors you might guess an article about mushrooms would focus on the mysterious effects of the few and illustrious psychotropic fungi. Good guess-but I have no experience with psychotropics in any form, so this article must be about something else entirely. It will, in fact, explore the notion that the mushroom, specifically the mature agaricus bisporous or portobello, is the dark meat of the meatless world. Agaricus bisporous is the most common species of edible mushroom. Many popular “varieties” – white mushroom, button mushroom, crimini mushroom, Swiss-Roman-or-Italian brown mushroom, champignon mushroom and portobello mushroom – are actually the very same agaricus at different stages of maturity. Historically harvested in grassy fields after cool autumn rainfalls, frequently in manure, the mature agaricus bisporous seems to appropriately find a frequent and comfortable home on the dark side of victuals.

As mentioned earlier, portobellos are the same species as the often benign white mushroom; just a little more mature and undeniably a whole lot darker. Just as many who choose to dine on white meat leave the often tastier, tender, velvety, succulent dark meat of the same bird to the wayside, many mushroom eaters choose to only experience the mild and safe white mushroom. Those who do appreciate either one know a dark, silky, sultry pleasure that they would not quickly forgo given the option. That being said, preparation is the key to achieving bliss in either case. Any fan of roast duck knows it should be crisp outside but NOT dry and any portobello enthusiast knows it can’t be slapped on a hot surface NAKED and be called done when heated through. After all, no one wants to eat a damp, rubbery sponge.

Despite it being a somewhat acquired taste, a portobello cap is frequently the only vegetarian (and even more frequently the only vegan) option on a restaurant menu. It is placed there by meat-eaters because it’s the meatiest naturally-occurring non-meat. It’s not a fruit or vegetable and it isn’t a grain – the usual vegetarian limitations. It isn’t a plant – and while it certainly isn’t an animal, there is something very carnal about this edible piece of mycology. It has some serious substance to it; juices flow when a portobello is cut or bitten into – making it a very logical choice for a meat substitute on a menu. However, as the dark meat of meatless offerings, it is not entirely beloved by those it is intended to please. Though the portobello graces menus all over just waiting to be ordered by restaurant-goers who are not going to consider any of the other entrees, it frequently gets left untouched in the kitchen; passed over for a garden salad and a side order of fries. In defense of these unenlightened diners: many restaurants have it on the menu for the sake of having a vegetarian/vegan option – not because they know its true charms. So in effect, many veg-heads who have taken a leap of faith and ordered a dark and seductive portobello have not actually been satiated by the deep, rich, earthy, juicy delight of a well prepared champignon. They have instead been subjected to a damp, rubbery sponge…usually on a previously frozen par-baked ciabatta roll.

The tragedy is that no matter how well-prepared the portobello may be, it still dwells on the dark side of culinary possibilities and – as with all foods that do so – it will never be truly appreciated by the masses. On the flip side, this leaves more for those of us inclined to brave the shadowy reaches of epicurean endeavors. As for me, I like my portobellos the same way I like my dark meat: (feel free to insert your own innuendo here) roasted, with a simple and savory sage and bread stuffing.

Sage and Bread Stuffed Portobellos

4 Portobello Mushrooms-washed, stems reserved
3 TBSP. Butter or high quality non-dairy margarine
1-2 Shallots, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 Carrots, diced (about ½ cup)
1-2 Celery Ribs, diced (about ½ cup)
½ C. Mushroom Stems, diced
6 C. Stale Bread, cubed
2 C. Vegetable Stock
¼ C. White Wine
2 TBSP. Fresh chopped sage
1 TBSP. Dry Parsley
Salt and pepper
Balsamic Vinegar
Grated Hard Italian Cheese of Choice, or finely chopped hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350
2. Drizzle both sides of mushroom caps with balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place them gill side up on a baking sheet Cor casserole dish.
3. Melt butter or margarine in saute pan on medium-high heat. Add shallots, carrots, celery and mushroom stems.
4. Cook until shallots are translucent and just starting to caramelize and carrots are tender, about 6 minutes.
5. De-glaze pan with white wine, add sage and parsley.
6. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
7. Place bread cubes in a large bowl.
8. Add contents of saute pan to bread and mix thoroughly.
9. Add 1 C. vegetable stock and mix. Continue to mix in stock until bread becomes soft and a cohesive mass is formed (best to knead with hands for this step).
10. Heap ¼ of the mixture onto each of the mushroom caps and pat down to stick mixture together.
11. Sprinkle with grated cheese or finely chopped hazelnuts.
12. Bake for 25 minutes, until mushrooms are tender and cheese or nut topping is slightly toasted.