Trusting in a go-to mushroom parmigiana

I’ll admit, I’m a little too attached to instructions.

My sister and I kid each other about this difference between us — she is more of a “freestyle” cook who invents and improvises (sans measuring spoons and cups), while I refer strictly to a recipe, allowing myself a few adaptations.

I can’t always hold a recipe in my head, either. A few have stuck, but generally, I have to continue to revisit my directions during the cooking process, which can be a tad stressful and lead to a flour-covered iPhone.

So, when something comes along that I can whip up, no recipe needed, and it is an endlessly delicious and sure-fire winning dish (that’s even — GASP — healthy), I must share it, with my utmost compliments to anyone who gives it a try.

Of course, that means I must break down the “unrecipe” into instructions for the new user, but they are simple, and I feel confident in relaying them here, and even confident that in the future, you, too, will make this without the need to refer to anything but your own experience.

This dish began with GIANT portabella mushrooms, which are astonishingly flavorful and meaty, and looking for ways to prepare them, and my seeing someone else make this entree. I used their set of instructions as my baseline to create a version of my own.

I LOVE parmigiana’s, usually in the form of eggplant or chicken, which are bread crumb-crusted then ensconced in sauce and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. While eggplant parmigiana offers a winning veggie main dish, the twist of interpreting this with mushrooms (mushroom lover that I be), and the easier process of putting it all together (no cutting or peeling or dipping, etc.), make it something I create again and again, without recipe, without care. It was even made to what could come as close to being rave reviews from a couple of die-hard meat eaters in Kansas (thankfully, portabella mushrooms are so mainstream now that you can even find them in small-town grocery stores).

Since the portabella is so thick and dense, the mushrooms, once damp-dusted with a moist paper towel, are first oiled, salted and peppered and cooked a little on the stovetop, either in a skillet or on a grill pan. I believe this step shouldn’t be skipped, because it helps tenderize the mushroom and also allows them to release a little liquid that won’t end up making the final dish watery.

A baking dish is lined with a layer of one’s favorite jarred (or homemade, if you are so inclined), marinara sauce. The partially cooked portabellas are arranged on top of the sauce, gill side up, and become the perfect little containers for the deliciousness that makes them parmigiana.

More sauce is layered into the mushroom caps (my recommendation is less is more here…I have an aversion to over-sauced Italian dishes). You can add the mushroom stems here, too, that have been chopped and cooked for more mushroom-ness in the filling. For the cheeses, I prefer some provolone versus mozzarella on top, although you could use either. I like provolone’s bigger flavor and less rubbery texture. On top of the cheese, some bread crumbs — I have used both the Italian-seasoned kind and the crunchier Panko. Both work well. What seals everything in — and should not be substituted — is a sprinkling of Parmesan over all, providing that flavorful net over top. A drizzle of olive oil (or knobs of butter), and the mushrooms go into the oven for a mere 20 minutes.

I make this dish at least once a month, when a stop at my favorite farmers’ market booth gives me great access to mighty mushrooms. It’s always delicious and satisfying, and if there is any mushroom parmigiana left (maybe), it makes a great portable portabella re-heat repeat for lunch at work the next day on its own or even on a roll!

One day, I hope to be more on a roll with more “recipe-less” recipes…

Mushroom Parmigiana
Serves 2 to 4

4 large (3- to 4-inch diameter) portabella mushrooms, cleaned using a damp paper towel, stems removed
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Cooking spray
Jarred or fresh marinara sauce
4 slices provolone cheese
4 tablespoons bread crumbs (seasoned or Panko)
1/2 cup freshly, finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (optional)

Brush both sides of each mushroom cap with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Heat a nonstick skillet or grill pan to medium/medium-high heat. Cook mushrooms for a few minutes on each side or until slightly tender and releasing juices. Remove to a plate to cool slightly. If desired, chop mushroom stems, season with salt and pepper and fry in skillet to add to filling.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Ladle about 1/2 to 2/3 cup sauce in bottom of pan (enough to spread and coat the bottom of pan with a thin layer of sauce). Arrange mushrooms over top. Fill each mushroom with a small amount of sauce (1/4 cup each) and the sauteed stems, if desired. Cut or tear slices of provolone into smaller pieces and distribute evenly over sauced mushrooms. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon bread crumbs over each mushroom cap. Then evenly distribute Parmesan cheese over each. Drizzle olive oil over mushrooms (or, for a richer version, place knobs of butter evenly on top).

Bake for about 20 minutes, until cheese and bread crumbs are golden brown and mushrooms are tender. Cool at least 5 minutes before serving.

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