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In Season: Mushrooms capture last flavors of winter

I’m no vegetarian, trust me.

I love a good burger, appreciate an old-fashioned steakhouse and have been hard at work cultivating my barbeque skills ever since I inherited a hand-me-down smoker.

But every now and then, I’m just not in the mood for meat. The fact is, I really like vegetarian cuisine. Especially when it comes to mushrooms.

Mushrooms are the steak equivalent of the vegetarian world. These edible fungi are hearty and savory, with a woodsy flavor and a toothsome bite that can satisfy even the most die-hard carnivores. And there seems no better time to enjoy this species than at the tail end of winter, when we still crave hearty, warming flavors as we endure the last bouts of rain and cold before spring.

Mushroom season is traditionally from late October to early March, when even in San Diego there are enough wild mushrooms to make foraging possible. (For more information, check out the San Diego Mycological Society, which held its annual fungus fair and foraging excursion this past weekend.)

While a few species of mushrooms are still culled from the wild (morels, chanterelles and the prized truffle), most mushrooms we eat today are cultivated. In fact, a wide variety of mushrooms are grown in San Diego County. Three companies—Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in Escondido, Golden Gourmet/Hokto Kinoko in San Marcos and CCD Mushrooms in Fallbrook—all farm mushrooms that are available locally. You can buy them at Henry’s and through Specialty Produce.

Mushrooms are quite nutritious, which is part of the reason they make such good vegetarian fare. When you swap your beef burger for a Portobello mushroom burger, you’re eliminating saturated fat and cholesterol and gaining several vitamins and minerals, fiber and even a bit of protein. Mushrooms are also notably high in Vitamin D, a vitamin that does not occur naturally in many foods we eat.

What’s more, they’re versatile. They can be steamed, sautéed, grilled, roasted and even deep-fried. They can be stuffed or form stuffing of their own and marry well with flavors as decadent as cream and butter or as healthy as spinach and onions. Try adding them to rice or pasta for a complex, woodsy flavor, or sauté sliced mushrooms to add a rustic touch to steak or chicken. Mushrooms pair well with strong flavors like blue cheese, pancetta or prosciutto.

When it comes to mushrooms, the excitement is in variety. Sure, you can add white button mushrooms to a salad, but limiting yourself to such a run of the mill variety is like going your whole life eating only Wonderbread. Winter is the season for more exotic mushrooms to surface, like dense morels, delicate chanterelles and hearty porcini. Look for these varieties, most of which are grown locally.

Portobello: These large, dense mushrooms grow larger than the palm of your hand. They are excellent for grilling whole or for slicing atop sandwiches and salads.

Cremini: These are a close relative of the white button mushroom, with a similar shape and a brown texture. Their dense texture holds up well to many varieties of cooking.

Shitake: Common in Asian cuisine, these hearty mushrooms have a deep, woodsy flavor and a chewy texture.

Oyster: These broad, fleshy mushrooms are given their name because of their resemblance to oysters. More delicate than Portobello or cremini, they are almost sweet. Enjoy sautéed, roasted or in stir fries.

King Trumpet: Tall, thick and slightly curvy, these dense mushrooms have a wonderfully woodsy flavor. They can be grilled whole or sliced—be sure to cook the stems as well as the caps. They are also excellent diced and mixed in risotto, duxelles or soup.

Beech: These small, delicate mushrooms grow in clusters and are small enough to be enjoyed whole. The mild nutty flavor is well-suited to dishes like seafood or risotto and is also a fun addition to stir-fries or soups, as their shape is recognizable.

Maitake: These mushrooms grow in blossom-like clusters and are deep brown in color. They have a hearty, earthy flavor and are wonderful in soups, stews and rice dishes.

Look for:

Look for mushrooms with smooth, unbroken crowns and intact gills (the ribbing underneath the crown). Mushrooms should be plump and clean, not shriveled or wrinkly. More delicate varieties such as oyster tear easily, so take care when handling. Avoid mushrooms with any form of decay. And always buy mushrooms from stores or reputable distributors, as many wild mushrooms are poisonous.

Store it:

Mushrooms keep best in a brown paper bag in the produce drawer of the fridge. If possible, wash just before using and dry thoroughly before cooking. Mushrooms can also be dried using a dehydrator or strung along strings in the sun. To reconstitute, soak in 70-degree water for one to three hours. (The soaking liquid can be used in stocks or soups). Cooked mushrooms are best eaten immediately. Although they can be frozen, they may lose some texture upon reheating.

Use it:

Mushrooms have two main parts—the stem and the crown. Most recipes call for the crown only, but the stems can be diced and used in stocks and to flavor cooking liquid. Mushroom crowns are wonderfully versatile and can be prepared many ways. As a simple side dish, sauté sliced mushrooms in a little butter and white wine—cook long enough for the liquid to evaporate. For a heartier flavor, roast mushrooms in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or toss whole on the grill.

The facts:

Mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, especially niacin and riboflavin, as well as Vitamin D (in fact, they are the only non-animal source of vitamin D in our diet). Mineral-wise, they are a good source of phosphorous, copper, iron and potassium. They are also a good source of fiber and protein, and have no fat or cholesterol.

Bonus points:

Mushrooms are a good source of many antioxidants and phytonutrients. Several studies have looked at potential cancer-preventing benefits, although more research is needed.

Lauren Duffy is an SDNN contributing writer.