Menu Development
Take guesswork out of prep by using stuffing
By Pasquale "Pat" Bruno

The best part about having stuffed food on your menu is that, in most instances, the dish can be prepared ahead. Take stuffed peppers, for example. There is no way you can do stuffed peppers to order and make it work. The same goes for stuffed shells and stuffed cabbage.

On the other hand, stuffed mushrooms can be stuffed to order (the mushroom and the stuffing having been prepped ahead), and so can stuffed tomatoes. To “stuff ahead” or not, is the question, and the answer has to do with a lot of common sense along with the longevity of the product. I find that mushrooms that are pre-stuffed tend to get a bit mushy. And a tomato half stuffed with, say, sausage and cheese, is not something that will keep its good flavor for a long period of time (even if it were refrigerated).

Now what do we do with an assortment of stuffed foods? Will stuffed food work as an appetizer? Yes. As an entreé? Yes. How about dessert? Sure. Amaretti stuffed peaches will be a hit with both kids and grownups alike. Actually, I do believe you can stuff almost anything (within reason, of course).

So here for you to dig into and digest are a number of ideas for getting stuffed stuff onto your menu. Sample them out to loyal customers or employees to get some feedback. Then use a few of these ideas as daily specials to see what customers think about your new ideas.

Pesto Stuffed Olives

These are a great addition to an antipasto platter or, if you prefer, list it as a light appetizer (great for your customers to munch on while they are waiting for their pizza or pasta dish).

½ cup prepared pesto sauce
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
25-30 (about) jumbo pitted black olives

Whip or process the pesto with the ricottta until creamy.

Cut a thin slice from one side of each olive so that it will stand upright. Using a pastry bag or a small spoon, stuff each olive with the pesto mixture. Arrange on a serving platter. Serve lightly chilled. (Can be made ahead up to four hours and held, refrigerated).

Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

Yield: depending on how large the mushrooms caps are, the serving size would be about 2-3 mushrooms

16 large mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic
6 ounces bulk pork sausage*
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Shredded mozzarella cheese

Remove stems from mushrooms and trim. Finely chop the stems and sauté in butter in a large heavy skillet with garlic until mushrooms are wilted, about 3 minutes. Add sausage and cook, stirring, until just cooked through (do not over brown). Stir in the remaining ingredients, mix well; taste to adjust the seasoning. Allow the sausage mixture to cool for 5 minutes (Can be prepped up to this point and held).

To order: Stuff each mushroom cap (mound the filling a bit) with about 1 to 2 tablespoons of the sausage mixture. Sprinkle a small amount of the mozzarella over the stuffing. Bake in hot oven, 400 to 450 degrees, about 5 minutes. Or place the mushrooms under the broiler until the cheese is melted and drapes over the side of the mushroom.

* Pre-cooked sausage chunks can be substituted.

Stuffed Shells
Yield: Serves 4. (Scale up in direct proportion)

12 jumbo pasta shells
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
½ grated Parmesan

In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta shells until they are not quite al dente (they will finish cooking in the oven). Drain. Set the cooked shells on paper toweling to dry. (Shells can be cooked several hours ahead.)

In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, mozzarella, salt, pepper, egg, and oregano. Whip with a large spoon until smooth. Refrigerate if not using at once.

Spoon a generous amount of the cheese mixture into each cooked shell, mounding the filling slightly higher than the shell itself.

If making portions to order, spread some warm marinara or meat sauce across the bottom of a baking dish. Put three of the stuffed shells on top of the sauce. Sprinkle some of the Parmesan over each shell. Bake, uncovered, until the sauce begins to bubble. Serve with additional sauce over the top or on the side.

Amaretti-Stuffed Peaches
It is possible to make this dessert ahead–stuffing the peaches and par-baking for about half the total baking time. Finish baking to order. Serve with a dollop of whip cream and a sprinkling of some extra crushed amaretti.

Makes 8 servings (scale up in direct proportion)

½ stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup coarsely crumbled amaretti (Italian almond macaroons)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
8 firm ripe small peaches, halved lengthwise and pitted

Preheat oven to 350 F. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and swirl it into a glass or ceramic baking dish.

In a food processor, process the amaretti until it is the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add the flour, sugar, remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Process and blend until butter is incorporated. Add the egg and blend until smooth.

Scoop some of the peach pulp from the center of each peach half (I use a small spoon) to create a cavity that will hold the filling. Slice a small piece off the bottom of each peach half so that it doesn’t tilt. Arrange each peach half, cut side up, in the baking dish. Divide the amaretti mixture among the peaches. Bake until the filling puffs a bit and gets crisp (about 35 minutes). Serve warm with a dollop of whip cream.

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