Here where we live, in an area known as the Gourmet Ghetto, our trendy, upscale grocery store has a produce section that is positively unbelievable. No matter how obscure the ingredient you seek, this place stocks several varieties of it. They have every color of pepper you can imagine, fresh herbs you never heard of, and their mushroom section is breathtaking.

For a lot of us, mushrooms are primarily ornamental or somewhat flavorful, but not particularly nourishing. Yet the explosion in mushroom-based dishes in vegetarian and low-fat cookbooks and on the menus of fancy restaurants would lead one to believe there is more to these strange looking fungi than meets the eye.

Surprisingly, mushrooms are a pretty good source of protein, and though they don't have any vitamin C or beta carotene (because they don't have chlorophyll), they are relatively high in B vitamins, copper and a variety of other minerals. They are also extremely low in calories (20 calories per cup of raw mushrooms).

There are more than 35,000 varieties of mushrooms, which the Egyptian pharaohs decreed to be a royal food. But leave it to the French to be the first to cultivate mushrooms in caves during the 17th Century. By the late 1800s, mushrooms were being grown everywhere, even indoors. This has taken most varieties out of the category of "expensive delicacy" and made them affordable and easily available. Most varieties also grow wild, but even though it may seem tempting to gather mushrooms while taking a walk in the forest, some are poisonous (often deadly), and even experienced mushroom collectors can't always tell the difference. Better to buy them from the market.

The most common mushroom in U.S. markets is the button variety. They are mild in flavor and sold in bulk, canned, frozen and dried. But we're bored with these. If, like us, you're feeling adventurous, look for some of the more unusual types, such as:

-- Cape (bolete, cepe, cep or porcino): These have stout stems
and a spongy surface underneath the brown cap. They range in
size from 1 inch to 20 inches in diameter and are grown in
Washington and Oregon or imported from France or Italy during
the summer and fall. They tend to be expensive but are among
the best tasting of the wild mushrooms.

-- Chanterelle (girolle, pfifferling): These mushrooms are
shaped like trumpets with frilly caps. They range from gold
to yellow-orange in color; some taste like apricots, while
others are more earthy. They are gathered primarily in the
U.S. Pacific Northwest.

-- Enoki (enokitake, enoki-daki): These mushrooms look like
something from outer space, with a tiny cap on a long thin
stem. They are creamy white and especially good raw in
salads or soups. They are native to Japan but are now
cultivated in California.

-- Italian brown: These are now cultivated domestically and
are less expensive than some other specialty mushrooms.
About the size of buttons, they have a rich flavor and
tender texture.

-- Morel: These are very expensive, even though they are grown
commercially in Michigan (where they also grow wild). They
are small and dark brown with conical, spongy caps. Their
especially intense flavor makes them perfect for sauces.

-- Oyster (pleurotus, tree oyster, phoenix, sovereign): This
mushroom is getting a lot of play in the health-food stores
these days, where wide ranging claims are made for them.
They are easy to cultivate, inexpensive and range in color
from off-white to gray-brown. They grow in clusters and are
often dense and chewy. Their flavor is improved by cooking,
and they are often used in meat dishes.

-- Portobello (Roma): These superstars of the mushroom world
are now on many fancy menus as a meat substitute. Indeed,
they are very hearty in flavor. They have circular flat tops
and long thick stems. They lend themselves to a number of
interesting dishes.

-- Shiitake golden oak mushroom (forest mushroom, black forest,
Oriental black, Chinese black): Once only available in Japan,
they are now grown on artificial logs in many states. They
are large and umbrella-shaped, brown-black in color and have
a rich flavor, which is especially good in sauces.

-- Wood ear (tree ear, black tree fungus): This is another
mushroom for which many health claims have been made. They
are usually sold dried but are now becoming available fresh.
They are very crunchy and work well in stir fries, casseroles
and stews.

Like most plants, mushrooms contain natural pesticides that protect them against predators. In mushrooms, these substances are called hydrazines, and there is some reason to believe they can be harmful if eaten in large quantities. However, most of the hydrazines are contained in the mushroom stems and can usually be destroyed by cooking.

While the occasional raw mushroom won't hurt anybody, it's a good idea to get rid of the stems or make sure they are well cooked.

When you buy mushrooms, reject any that are slimy, bruised or pitted. Look for mushrooms with closed "veils". If the veils are slightly open, the gills under the cap should be pink or tan, not brown or black. The specialty mushrooms will not have the clean, uniform look of cultivated button mushrooms. However, they should be firm and meaty, dry to the touch, but not withered.

Storing mushrooms is a little tricky. If you leave them uncovered, they will dry out. If you enclose them in moisture-proof wrapping they will get soggy and disgusting. Try putting them in a closed paper bag or a shallow glass dish which you can cover with a kitchen towel or a slightly moist paper towel. If they are prepackaged, leave them that way. Don't wash or trim them before storing them. Keep them on a refrigerator shelf, instead of the crisper (which is too humid). At best, they will keep for a week. If they should get a little dark and the caps open, they can still be used for flavoring foods.

Dried mushrooms, which are more like a seasoning than a "vegetable", will keep more or less indefinitely if you wrap them in plastic or put them in a tightly closed jar and keep them in the freezer or the refrigerator. If you just want to store them in a cool, dark place, they will last for up to six months.

 

Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

 

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