The mushroom is just one of a very large, diverse group of organisms called fungi. It is similar to a plant but lacks chlorophyll, so they cannot produce food for themselves through photosynthesis. The mushroom is a decomposer that absorbs nutrients from materials such as compost, leaves, decaying wood, and soil. There are many types of mushrooms, varying in size, shape and color, with surfaces that range from smooth and silky to pitted and honeycombed. The most common and readily available are the cultivated white mushrooms, which have a mild flavor and can be used in many types of dishes. Wild mushrooms, such as chanterelle, morel, shiitake, portobello and oyster, will provide a more intense and exotic flavor. Generally, mushrooms contain 90 percent water and have few calories. The fat and carbohydrate content is minimal and they do not contain any cholesterol. They are rich in protein and contain vitamins such as B, C and D, while a few contain vitamin A. Be aware that some of the vitamin values are destroyed during the cooking process.

How to use: Mushrooms can be fried, sautéed, or stir-fried on their own and eaten as a side dish or used to top an entrée. Mushrooms are also popular as an ingredient in salads, soups, sauces stir-fries, meat dishes, and other main dishes.

At their best: Cultivated mushrooms, such as portobello, shiitake, cremini, and oyster, are available year-round. The wild mushrooms are available during their seasonal times, such as morels that are available in the spring, chanterelles in mid-summer, and porcini in the fall. Dried mushrooms are available all year-round.

How to buy: When selecting, choose mushrooms that are firm, fresh and free of blemishes. Check underneath their caps for tightly closed brown gills and be sure the surface of the cap is not dried and woody on the edges. Also look for slimy or sticky surfaces and for any coloring that is not normal. When buying dried mushrooms, check the package and if they are crushed into little pieces, do not buy them. Look for packages containing large pieces. To know what quantity of dried mushrooms to purchase, figure that two ounces will equal approximately one pound of fresh mushrooms.

Storage: If storing in the refrigerator, do not clean them before storing. Store uncleaned mushrooms in a paper bag or their original container. Do not store in plastic or airtight plastic containers, which causes them to retain moisture and decay faster. Keep them in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days. It is best to eat them as soon as possible. Dried mushrooms may be stored indefinitely. To preserve mushrooms for an extended period of time, use other methods such as freezing, drying, salting, canning or pickling.