A little trivia: Early Greeks and Romans are thought to be among the initial mushroom growers. Romans in particular were very fond of this member of the fungus family, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, mushrooms were avoided, out of a justifiable fear of poisoning. The Italians were the first to reclaim it, and its popularity soon spread throughout Europe. Today, thousands of varieties of cultivated and wild mushrooms grow all over the world.
Selection tips: In general, look for firm, evenly colored mushrooms. Avoid mushrooms that are broken, damaged, or have soft spots, as well as those that seem damp or smell of mildew. It's a good idea to hand-select mushrooms; choose those of equal size if they are to be cooked whole, so they'll cook evenly.
Storage tips: Fresh mushrooms can be stored, unwashed, in the refrigerator for up to three days. Don't wrap them in plastic; they'll stay firmer placed in a single layer on a tray, and covered with a damp paper towel.
How to eat them: Rinse with cold water and blot dry with paper towels, or wipe off with a damp paper towel. Use immediately after cleaning, or the flesh will quickly darken. Trim 1/4" off the stem ends, except with shiitake mushrooms, in which case the whole stem should be removed.
Peak growing season: While most mushrooms are available year-round, many are at their peak in fall and winter.
Health benefits: Unlike most other vegetables, mushrooms contain two important B vitamins―niacin and riboflavin. The shiitake is a particularly healthful mushroom, as it contains lentinan, which may help fight cancer and bolster the immune system.
Nutritional info: Although the breakdown varies a little according to type, in general, a half cup of raw mushroom pieces weighs in at a mere 9 calories, providing 0.4 gram of fiber, 0.7 gram of protein, 0.1 gram of fat (none of it saturated), 1 milligram of sodium, and no cholesterol.