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I still recollect my first visit to the grocery store when I arrived in the United States 22 years ago. I was flabbergasted by the wide array of picture perfect vegetables and fruits, and I deeply missed the fun element of haggling with the vegetable vendor. I saw some weird vegetables that I had never seen before. The cauliflower was green, the capsicum was red (and had a funny name: bell pepper), the green bunch looked like coriander leaves but was called cilantro. With the exception of spinach, I did not recognize any of the green leafy vegetables. The fungi, that we were told as kids never to touch, was displayed ever so neatly, and I saw people actually buying it.

Alas, I thought, I would have to survive on cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, and spinach!

As the years rolled by, I ventured into trying the green cauliflower (broccoli), red bell pepper, and leafy vegetables like arugula, mustard greens, and lettuce. Somehow, I could not get myself to touch, forget eat, the fungi called mushrooms.

My friend Chanda Bondre introduced me to the mushroom. At one of her parties, she made a stir-fry vegetable dish with mushrooms and tomatoes. I eyed it with horror. She saw the look on my face and assured me that it was not poisonous. Just to be polite, I took a spoonful of the mushroom onto my plate and waited for everyone around me to eat it first. Okay, I noticed, nobody was getting sick or collapsing after eating it. Hesitantly, I nibbled the mushroom. It was love at first bite!

The general misconception about mushrooms is that they are light in nutrition. In fact, mushrooms are nature’s hidden treasure. Mushrooms are low in calories and fat but nutrient dense with the bonus of being simply delicious. The ideal combination: healthy food that tastes good, too.

4-5 medium-sized mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. White mushrooms have an antioxidant capacity similar to tomatoes, zucchini, and carrots, while brown mushrooms are comparable to green beans, red pepper, and broccoli.

The care and handling of the famous fungi requires a little sensitivity. When you’re buying loose mushrooms, choose those with smooth, unblemished caps, firm gills, and a clean aroma.

Store mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator (they’ll spoil fast in plastic). If you’re buying packaged mushrooms, remove the plastic wrap and cover the tray loosely with a paper towel.

Mushrooms hate baths. Because they’re so porous, they absorb water easily, altering the flavor and texture. To clean mushrooms, wipe the caps with a damp cloth or gently brush them to remove particles of dirt. If they’re very dirty, rinse them quickly with cold water and pat dry. Mushrooms do not need to be peeled (nutritional value is just under the skin so don’t peel them!) but sometimes the stems may be rough, particularly with Shitakes, and those should be trimmed before using them.

Don’t crowd the pan when you sauté them and you will be rewarded with a delicious and gorgeous caramelized mushroom instead of a soupy mess. Mushrooms cook quickly, so if adding to a stew, add them toward the end.
There are 70,000 species of the mushrooms in the world, but only about 250 are actually edible. Lately there are many varieties of mushrooms available in grocery stores. White button mushrooms are great for stuffing, but I prefer criminis or Italian brown mushrooms for stir-fry recipes, Portobello for grilling, and Shitakes for soups and stews.

Stuffed Mushrooms

15 white button mushrooms
1 teaspoon oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 cup cilantro, washed and chopped
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Remove the stems from the mushrooms and chop them finely.

Heat oil in a sauté pan. Add garlic and onions, diced stems. Sauté until it is golden brown. Remove from heat and add garam masala, cilantro, lime juice and salt.

Mix well and stuff this mix in mushroom caps. Bake at 275 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Mushroom Sandwich

4 sandwich rolls
4 tablespoons hummus
10-12 jalapenos rings (deli-sliced, from the jar)
4 Swiss cheese slices
1 teaspoon oil
20 crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

In a sauté pan heat oil and add mushrooms, onions, and bell pepper. Sauté for 5 minutes. Keep aside.
Cut open the bread roll and apply half spoon of hummus to either side. Lay the sautéed vegetables over it and place the Swiss cheese over it.

Repeat with the other bread rolls.

Place the open sandwich in the oven or toaster oven until the cheese melts.

Eat piping hot.

Mushroom Soup

I like to use a variety of mushroom in this soup for a unique flavor.

5 white mushrooms, sliced
5 shitake mushrooms, sliced
5 crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 red onion, diced
1 celery stick, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 tomato, diced
4 cups water
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
3-4 garlic cloves
1 cup milk
5-6 fresh basil leaves, minced
salt and pepper

In a pot, add all vegetables and water and bring to a vigorous boil. Keep aside for cooling.

In a small pan heat oil and add garlic cloves and flour. Sauté for two minutes on low heat. Add milk slowly. Cook for a minute and add it to the soup pot.

Place the soup in a blender to make a smooth puree. Finally add basil leaves, salt, and pepper. Serve piping hot with sourdough bread.

Mushroom Medley

15 mushrooms, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 teaspoons oil
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1 garlic clove (minced)
1 teaspoon chili powder (to taste)
1 teaspoon cumin powder
2 tablespoons tomato paste
8-10 almonds
3-4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water

Place almonds and cardamom pods in a spice grinder and make a fine powder. Keep aside.

Heat oil in a pan. Add ginger and garlic paste. Stir for a couple of minutes. Add chili powder, cumin powder, tomato paste, almond powder and water. Simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add chopped mushroom and bell pepper, yogurt and salt. Cook for ten minutes on low heat. Serve piping hot with roti or rice.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at