Thousands of different mushrooms grow all over the world, but until recently the only fresh ones in US stores were the common, neat, tan-and-white cultivated mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus.
But now you can find half a dozen different kinds of mushrooms in the stores - some wild and fresh from woods and fields, others cultivated on commercial mushroom farms.
''It won't be long before you'll see dozens of different kinds of mushrooms - morels, oyster mushrooms, chanterelles - in the big supermarket chains all over the country,'' says Justin Rashid of American Spoon Foods, in Petoskey, Mich.
''They'll become the new vegetable. It's just a matter of time and not a very long time. Exotics will be common and the price will come down.''
Mr. Rashid's own company is one of the few of its kind, seeking out top-quality wild foods to ship fresh, often great distances, to special customers.
When it comes to cultivated mushrooms, two of the favorites right now are the tiny enoki and the large Chinese shiitaki that some say taste like steak and which the Japanese and Chinese have been growing for thousands of years.
The skinny-stemmed enoki, with a tiny white cap about the size of a pencil eraser, is popular mostly for its texture and for its very delicate perfumed aroma. Also called enokidake or Snow Puff Mushroom, it is available canned.
Other favorites are morels and chanterelles, often used in French dishes, and the porcini of Italian cuisine, previously available dried and imported, but not fresh.
It wasn't until the 1920s that American scientists perfected production methods for cultivated mushrooms and the Agaricus bisporus became available and familiar throughout the world as well as throughout the US.
Now, partly because of heightened awareness of ecology and the environment, people have asked for more wild and fresh foods of all kinds, and wild-food foragers are finding them in the woods and fields of the countryside.
Wild mushrooms grow in such diverse places as the foothills of Vermont's Green Mountains, the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, and along California's Cascade Range north to British Columbia.
When they get to the stores the prices are high. Fresh morels ranged from $18 to $25 a pound this spring. The dried imported ones can be $14 or $15 an ounce. But despite the cost, morels are very popular.
John Hinds of Portland, Ore., says his wild-mushroom company shipped more than 2,000 pounds of morels in 41/2 weeks and could have sold three times as many more this spring.
At the Woodstock Inn in Vermont, a morel-hunting excursion with picnic lunch was offered to hotel guests. Under the guidance of an experienced forester, John P. Wiggin, baskets of the cone-shaped fungi were gathered, along with fresh, tender young fiddlehead greens and wild leeks. Back at the inn, Chef Peter Wynier cooked them into delicious dishes.
And in northwestern Michigan at Boyne City's 25th Annual Mushroom Festival, hundreds of people gathered to compete and to praise winner Tony Williams, who picked 575 morels in 90 minutes on the first day, then 221 the second day of the contest, hampered by three inches of snow in the designated picking area.
In the Northeast, where morels are found in smaller quantities, people are notoriously secretive about location.
But in Oregon, John Hinds, amazed at the mushrooms he saw while hiking and camping, says his Pacific Northwest Mushroom Company grew from a hobby 10 years ago into his thriving business of today.
Although most wild mushrooms have a short season, Mr. Hinds says that when the morel season ends he moves into the season for cepes, or Boletus edulis, which are like the Italian porcini with a mild, sweet flavor.
He will also harvest yellow and white chanterelles. In the late fall he likes the coral mushroom, which picks up the flavor of a dish instead of adding a flavor.
Also called Goat's Beard and Bear's Head, it can grow as large as two feet across and is good when breaded and fried.
In Michigan, Justin Rashid sells, in addition to morels, the oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, also called oyster cap, which is shaped like a shell, a fan , or the half shell of an oyster.
Mr. Rashid and his wife, Kate Marshall, have a natural foods store that has evolved into American Spoon Foods Inc., a retail store and mail-order source for special restaurants.
They started their business when they learned of New York Chef Larry Forgione's search for fresh morels. Now partners with Mr. Forgione, they're foraging as a profession.
They ship other wild foods and both fresh and dried mushrooms, as well as fruit preserves, fiddlehead greens, pickled wild leeks, and buffalo sausage.
Mushrooms of all kinds add freshness and special zest to any dish. Most can be used interchangeably in mushroom recipes, and when it comes to preparation many of the the same rules apply. When washing, expose to water as little as possible, wiping with a damp cloth if necessary, or rinse quickly and dry. The base of the stem often needs cutting off, as do any blemishes.
Wild mushrooms usually have more liquid when heated than cultivated ones, and you'll find they will reduce in size as they cook. If there is liquid it can be poured off and used for soup or sauce.
Be careful not to overcook wild mushrooms, as with cultivated, for it can make them tough.
Read the recipe carefully when substituting wild mushrooms for cultivated or dried ones. Dry mushrooms often have a more concentrated flavor than fresh and less may be needed, depending on the recipe.
Here is a basic recipe for mushrooms of any kind. Baked Mushrooms
Clean mushrooms and place in a casserole or ovenproof dish with butter, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook at 350 degrees F. for 10 to 25 minutes, depending on age, size, and thickness of mushrooms. Sprinkle lemon juice over before serving.
Variations: Add sour cream or yogurt instead of butter.
Add finely chopped onion or garlic that has been sauteed until soft or add chopped parsley or herbs.
The following recipe from Franklin Mushroom Farms, North Franklin, Conn., uses the Chinese stir-fry technique with familiar American ingredients. Mushroom Pasta Stir Fry
1/2 pound rotini or shell pasta (about 2 1/2 cups dry)
1/8 pound butter or margarine
1 pound button or small mushrooms
6 small green onions, in l-inch strips
1/2 medium red pepper, in l/4-inch strips
1/4 pound snow peas
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Cook pasta by package directions or about 10 minutes. Drain.
Melt butter in large skillet, add mushrooms, and cook on medium heat until liquid appears.
Add remaining ingredients and cook and stir over high heat until liquid cooks away, about 2 minutes.
Combine with cooked pasta and toss gently.
Yields 7 cups or 6 servings as a side dish.