On the subject of fresh vs. canned mushrooms, fresh wins hands down. Canned mushrooms are good to keep in the pantry to toss into soups or on a last-minute pizza, but it takes the fresh varieties to deliver the earthy flavor that only mushrooms have.
The freshest of fresh are the varieties that the adventurous gourmand likes to hunt for in the wild and hopefully to pick mushrooms that are edible and not poisonous. In this region, hunting for morels is like hunting for gold. Other wild varieties are chanterelles, cepes, and puffballs.
I prefer to do my mushroom hunting in the produce department at the supermarket, where there are several varieties. Like other produce such as apples, peppers, and lettuce, each kind of mushroom is best suited for a specific use.
Someday I want to go bananas and buy every kind of mushroom, then cook them together with plenty of butter in my large wok. I would have to include some trendy portabellos, though I have never warmed up to them. I can't imagine making or ordering a portabello sandwich. Now that grilling season is here, the giant mushrooms will be lined up with steaks and burgers. They may add status to a menu, but they can be tough to cut.
Portabellos are simply mature crimini that have grown large enough to show the veins under the cap. Both crimini, which are also called baby portabellos, and portabellos have a rich "mushroomy" flavor in sauces and stir-fries.
Well-stocked produce departments include several other varieties of cultivated mushrooms. The white mushroom is the most popular and the best known. The smallest whites are called buttons. The sizes graduate to jumbo for stuffing. Whites have a milder flavor and are a good choice to use raw in salads.
Shiitakes are native to Japan but available in the United States. They have dark-brown caps and curved stems. Shiitakes add a pleasant earthy flavor to pasta dishes.
Enokis are the darlings of the mushroom family and are fun to find in a Chinese entree or a casserole dish. Enokis grow in clusters with tiny caps and long, slender stems. They are kept in the clusters for cooking. They should only be cooked briefly because they are delicate and have a mild flavor.
Oyster mushrooms are so named because it is believed the caps are shaped like oyster shells. This variety is mostly gray and is suggested for soups and stir-fries.
Mushrooms have specific flavors and interesting shapes, but we shouldn't forget their nutritional value. They are low in calories and carbohydrates, are a valuable source of potassium, contain selenium, an essential trace mineral, and also are a source of the B complex vitamins, riboflavin, which is believed to promote healthy skin and good vision, and niacin, which aids the digestive system.
It's wise to know what you will use the mushrooms for before buying them. If they are fresh when purchased they will keep for a week, but they do deteriorate quickly. To maintain freshness, place the mushrooms on a tray in a single layer and cover with a damp towel. When ready to use wipe them dry with a towel.
Never soak mushrooms in water. They will become mushy. The best way to clean them is with a soft mushroom brush. You don't have a mushroom brush? Then tear off a piece of paper towel.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: email@example.com.