MushroomsThe rich essence of dark, moist forests is captured in the taste, aroma and even appearance of mushrooms. Fresh or dried, mushrooms can be a subtle part of a dish or the star ingredient of a main course. These earthly delights marry well with most flavors, and are wonderful with garlic, lemon and herbs, especially tarragon and marjoram, as well as soy, Madeira and mustards. Composed of mostly water, mushrooms are filling, yet very low-fat; their versatility is limited only by personal choice.

All mushroom varieties — cultivated or wild — should be moist and plump, rather than slippery, dry or wrinkled. Cultivated mushrooms are more uniform in appearance, while wild varieties vary greatly. With few exceptions — portobello and enoki — look for mushrooms with closed gills (the under portion of the mushroom), which prevents loss of moisture. And make sure mushrooms smell fresh and woodsy.

For the most part, mushrooms are more flavorful when cooked. Sautéeing gently in a small amount of butter or extra-virgin olive oil is ideal. They can also be sautéed in a bit of broth, or even water, to avoid the added fats, but be careful to watch the temperature: High heat is destructive to the subtle flavors of mushrooms. A small amount of salt brings out some of the juices, which can be a part of the dish or reduced to a rich elixir. And a squeeze of fresh lemon juice brings out the earthy taste. Most fresh mushrooms lose their distinctive shape and texture if overcooked, so it's best to add them toward the conclusion of cooking, similar to fresh herbs.

Generally, mushrooms are interchangeable in recipes. Certain types, such as the slightly sweet and fragile enoki and rich truffles, do not lend themselves to substitution, but many varieties can be used singly as an accent to a dish or in combinations as the main event, with excellent results. Let these earthly treasures grace your table tonight.

Mushroom SaladFresh Baby Spinach with Wild Mushrooms
Serves 4

Accompanied by a warm loaf of French bread, this lovely and simple salad makes an elegant first course or a light lunch.

Prep Time: 10 Minutes
Cooking Time: 15 Minutes

1 pound mixed wild mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, oyster, chanterelle)
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup mushroom soaking liquid
2 teaspoons fresh herbs (tarragon, thyme, basil or marjoram)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cups baby spinach, rinsed
Grated cheese (Parmesan, Romano or Asiago)
Enoki mushrooms (optional)

1. Rinse mushrooms. Remove stems and save for stock. Chop or slice mushrooms, depending upon size. Remove gills from portobellos.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet and sauté garlic carefully for 5 minutes. Add mushrooms (except enoki) and cook, stirring until they begin to release their juices. Add soaking liquid and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes to slightly reduce liquids. Add herbs, baslamic vinegar and salt and pepper. Stir well.

3. Place spinach in a large salad bowl. Top with mushrooms and their sauce. Toss well to slightly wilt spinach. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

4. Serve garnished with grated cheese and enoki mushrooms.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 100 Fat: 6 g % fat calories: 54 Cholesterol: 4 mg Carbohydrate: 7 g Protein: 5 g

Grilled Portobellos
Serves 8

Meaty, rich-tasting portobellos are fast becoming a vegetarian staple in fine restaurants. Serve alone or between slices of toasted sourdough.

Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cooking Time: 10 Minutes

8 large fresh portobellos
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons fresh herbs of your choice

1. Remove stems from mushrooms and reserve for another use.

2. Heat olive oil in a skillet and gently sauté garlic for 2­3 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Brush mushroom caps with garlic oil and sauté gill side up in a heavy skillet or gas grill over medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn and continue to cook until done. Season with salt, pepper and fresh herb garnish.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 87 Fat: 6 g % fat calories: 57 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 6 g Protein: 3 g

Mushroom SauceMushroom Sauce
Makes 4 Cups, or Serves 8

The mixture of mushrooms in this sauce provides interest and a more developed flavor than found in single-mushroom dishes.

Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cooking Time: 15 Minutes

1 cup dried mushrooms (about 1 ounce)
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
6 cups mixed fresh mushrooms (shiitake, chanterelle, oyster, crimini)
1/2 cup tomato juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons shoyu (wheat-free tamari)
1/2 cup fresh chopped herbs of your choice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup low-fat sour cream (optional)
Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Rinse dried mushrooms thoroughly. Place in a heat-proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak until soft. Remove rehydrated mushrooms from water, mince and set aside. Let liquid settle for 5 minutes. Pour off and reserve clear portion. Save this liquid for sauce.

2. Heat oil in a heavy pot. Sauté leek, garlic and bay leaf for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, remove stems from fresh mushrooms, and cut mushrooms into small cubes. Add to leek and garlic mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms begin giving off their juices. Add reserved, rehydrated mushrooms, 1/2 cup clear soaking water, tomato juice, lemon juice and shoyu. Stir well, bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes. This allows sauce to reduce and flavors to blend.

3. Remove from heat and stir in herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Add sour cream (if desired) for a lighter-colored sauce. Serve garnished with Parmesan cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 104 Fat: 5 g % fat calories: 41 Cholesterol: 3 mg Carbohydrate: 12 g Protein: 4 g

Hearty Three-Mushroom Soup
Serves 8

Cans, begone! This robust soup will warm you up on a cool autumn evening. It's also great as a second-day meal when flavors have more fully married. Serve it with a fresh loaf of whole-grain bread.

Prep Time: 40 Minutes
Cooking Time: 1 Hour, 5 Minutes

3/4 cup water
1/4 cup organic wild rice (not a blend)
1 cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/3 cup dry sherry
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3 cups finely chopped button mushrooms
2 cups finely chopped crimini mushrooms
1 cup finely chopped shiitake mushrooms
3/4 cup finely chopped carrots
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring water to a boil in a small, covered pot. Add wild rice. Return to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Set aside.

2. In a large soup pot, cook and stir shallots in oil until tender. Add flour. Stir 4­5 minutes or until toasty.

3. Whisk in sherry and stir until dry. Whisk in broth 1 cup at a time, blending after each addition. Bring to a boil.

4. Add mushrooms to the broth. Return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.

5. Transfer soup to a blender and purée. Return to pot. Add carrots, parsley and wild rice. Simmer 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 118 Fat: 14 g % fat calories: 31 Cholesterol: 0 mg Carbohydrate: 16 g Protein: 3 g

Sally Steward is a freelance writer and chef in La Crescenta, Calif. Mary Jo Romano does recipe development and holistic food counselling in Norwalk, Ct.

Wild or cultivated, enoki or portobello, mushrooms enhance a variety of dishes with their aromatic scents and woodsy flavors by Sally Steward & Mary Jo Romano

Photography by: Rita Maas