This member of the fungus family boasts thousands of cultivated and wild varieties. Mushrooms historically have often been feared and avoided in many cultures due to their possible toxicity. Although a few unusual varieties like morels and matsutakes are still mainly foraged from the wild, the vast majority of mushrooms found at farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants today are cultivated and totally safe for us to eat.
Mushrooms technically are not a vegetable, nor are they a plant since they have no leaves or seeds and don't need any light to grow. This edible fungus is in a culinary category unto itself. Mushrooms also contain uniquely impressive nutritional benefits as well. They are an excellent source of potassium -- one medium sized portabella mushrooms contains more potassium than a large banana -- which can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke. They are also a rich source of two very important B vitamins, niacin and riboflavin, which can help boost the metabolism.
Look for firm, evenly colored mushrooms. Avoid those that are bruised, sticky or seem damp. The gills, if exposed, should be undamaged.
Mushrooms will usually only stay fresh for a few days after purchase, so use them as soon as possible. If you're storing them for a few days, keep them in the original packaging they came wrapped in. If they were purchased loose, wrap them in paper towels and then enclose them loosely in a plastic or paper bag. Do not clean them until you are ready to cook with them.
There are a lot of strong opinions out there on the best way to clean mushrooms. Some say to clean well in running water; others say a light dusting with a damp kitchen towel is completely adequate. I find that most cultivated mushrooms are hardly dirty and require nothing more than a quick wipe off with a damp towel. With some types of mushrooms, like oyster and maitake, I find it unnecessary to wash them at all. Mushrooms that have tiny little crevices, such as morels, do require a quick swish in cold water to extract any kind of debris or tiny creatures that may be hiding within.
The possibilities are really endless when it comes to ways to prepare mushrooms. Do keep in mind, however, that most wild mushrooms need to be cooked before eating. Mushrooms are great when grilled, sautéed, roasted or pureed in a creamy soup, but one of favorite ways to utilize these fun little fungi is in an earthy red wine risotto.
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