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Mushrooms are a plant that grows from a spore rather than a seed. In technical terms it is the above–ground, fruiting body of a fungus. While that may not sound appealing to some, mushrooms are among the most flavorful and versatile of all vegetables, having been around since the time of the Pharaohs. They, the Pharaohs, were so enthralled with their flavor that they banned commoners from touching them thus insuring an adequate supply of this delicacy for themselves. In the United States, mushroom farming started in earnest in 1896 in Kennett Square,Pennsylvania. Today nearly 60% of all the mushrooms grown in theUnited Statescome fromPennsylvania. Californiaranks a distant second in production at 14%. The 2005-2006 mushroom crop was 843 million pounds. That’s nearly three pounds annually for every person in the United States.
There are more than 38,000 varieties of mushrooms, however, only about 2500 are actually harvested for consumption and of those only a handful make up nearly all of the US consumption. Here are some of the most popular varieties:
White: Accounting for approximately 85% of all mushroom consumption it is by far the most popular variety. Ranging in size from button to upwards of 3 inches in diameter it is available bulk as well as in a variety of packaging options including whole, sliced, and caps. As these mushrooms darken and the veil opens they take on a richer flavor. Use them raw in salads; sautéed, grilled or stuffed for appetizers.
Crimini: Similar in shape to Whites but tan to dark brown in color. They have a richer, earthier flavor than Whites and can be substituted in any recipe calling for White mushrooms. They are excellent with beef.
Portabellas: A relative of the Crimini and White mushroom it can grow to impressive size. Portabellas up to 6 inches in diameter are common. Again tan to dark brown, they have a dense meaty texture and flavor. This “meaty” attribute makes them a popular ingredient in vegetarian sandwiches and entrees. Portabellas are excellent for stuffing and in sauces and soups. A variety of package choices are available.
Shiitake: Tan to dark brown in color, they look similar to a Crimini but they have an umbrella-shaped cap with an open veil. Once cooked, this rather spongy variety becomes meaty and takes on a woodsy flavor. The stem of these mushrooms is, in fact, quite woody so it is best to remove it before use. Great for stir fry, pasta and soup.
Enoki: This mushroom is unique in that it appears almost flower-like with a cluster of long stems ending in small caps. They store almost twice as long as most other varieties, up to 14 days. Enoki mushrooms are used raw in salads and as a garnish. They have a mild flavor and are slightly crunchy.
Oyster: With a delicately fluted cap and color that ranges from gray to light brown these mushrooms have a very mild flavor and soft texture. They are best used in cooking and are a great alternative for White mushrooms. They go especially well with chicken, pork and seafood.
At the supermarket, look for mushrooms that are free of major blemishes and spots. They should be dry but not dried out and they should look smooth and fresh. The thin membrane under the cap, known as the veil, has more to do with flavor than freshness. A closed veil indicates a delicate flavor and an open veil indicates a richer, more robust flavor.
Mushrooms should always be stored in the refrigerator. Unopened packages will store for several days but once they are opened it is best to store them in a porous paper bag to allow moisture to escape. Avoid air tight containers and handle them gently as mushrooms bruise very easily. Mushrooms do not freeze well.
Preparation and Uses
Never wash mushrooms until just prior to using them. Rinse with cold water making sure to remove any soil particles then pat dry with a paper towel. Following washing, mushrooms can be used as they are although you may want to trim the stem if roots are present. They can be used whole, sliced or chopped and the variety of recipes available for mushrooms is virtually endless. Sautéing is the simplest form of preparation but they can also be roasted, grilled and even micro-waved. In fact, microwaving requires no oil or butter and an eight ounce bowl (covered) of thickly sliced mushrooms takes just two to three minutes to prepare in the microwave.
Mushrooms contain limited amounts of several B vitamins, potassium, copper and selenium. Their biggest nutritional asset is the fact that they are a versatile low-calorie, fat-free food that adds flavor to an abundant variety of foods.