(Feb. 3) Need a menu boost? Turn to the versatile mushroom as a trendy way to add a touch of class to the menu and a touch of cash to the till.

The Mushroom Council, Dublin, Calif., pegs annual U.S. per capita mushroom consumption at 4.2 pounds and says mushrooms are turning up on more restaurant and foodservice menus every year.

A Chain Account Menu survey of 200 top restaurant chains showed a 24.2% increase in the use of grilled or sauteed mushrooms between 1998 and 2000.

In addition to mainstream consumers, mushrooms appeal to many ethnic groups, including Asians and Italians, and they’re often found in regional Mexican cuisine, says Marilyn Dompe, the council’s foodservice marketing consultant.

Mushrooms’ meaty flavor makes them a great ingredient in vegetarian sandwiches, and you even can reduce the size of a steak if you enhance the entree with mushrooms — making the meal more healthful for your customers and more profitable for you.

Although most mushrooms are grown in Pennsylvania and California, 20 other states produce the flavorful fungi, which makes them readily available nearly everywhere. And most commercially grown varieties are sold year-round.

The use of specialty varieties skyrocketed by 74%, with portabellas alone accounting for 35% of the increase, between 1998 and 2000, according to the study.

Though there are more than 2,500 varieties of mushrooms worldwide, here’s a look at the ones your produce purveyor most likely has on hand:

WHITES

White — or agaricus — mushrooms continue to be the most popular and readily available variety, accounting for 90% of all mushrooms cultivated in the U.S. Their mild, woodsy flavor becomes more intense when they’re cooked. Serve them raw, sauteed, braised, grilled or marinated as a side dish or in hors d’oeuvres, salads, soups or vegetable trays.

Ted Rowe, chef/owner of Mulberry Street Pizzeria, San Rafael, Calif., finds them perfect for his Mushroom-Lovers Pizza. He sautees them with garlic, herbs, spices and butter until they are almost dry. He then deglazes the pan with manufacturing cream. He places one-half to three-fourths of an inch of the mixture on the crust and tops it with mozzarella and provolone cheeses.

CRIMINIS

Crimini (Italian brown) mushrooms, similar to the white variety, have an earthier taste than whites and can be substituted for white mushrooms. They go well with beef, wild game and vegetable dishes. Some chefs refer to them as “baby portabellas,” a related variety that customers may be more familiar with.

Michael Foley, proprietor of Printers Row Restaurant in Chicago, says he keeps at least five varieties of mushrooms on hand at all times. He especially enjoys working with crimini mushrooms in his Shaved Crimini and Celery Salad. He uses a Japanese mandoline to shave crimini mushrooms and fresh celery and adds celery leaves, extra-virgin olive oil, citrus balsamic vinaigrette and a few drops of lemon. He garnishes the salad with shaved parmesan cheese and a puff pastry twist.

PORTABELLAS

Portabellas are the most popular of the specialty mushrooms. They can grow up to 6 inches in diameter and have a deep, meatlike flavor and substantial texture. They often are used as a meat substitute and in sandwiches.

Mark Chew, executive chef at Courtney’s Ristorante Italiano and Samantha’s Cafe in Hockessin, Del., says the portabella is the most popular variety he uses. Guests love his Grilled Portabella Toibre. He grills a portabella mushroom and marinates it overnight with garlic, olive oil, basil, rosemary, salt and pepper. He puts it back on the grill before serving it as an appetizer or side dish topped with spicy peppercorn sauce.

Robin Clement, marketing and special projects manager for University Catering by Sodexho, Davis Calif., uses portabellas as a substitute for beef in a barbecued mushroom burger. She also offers them seasoned, grilled and sliced up like sandwich meat in a deli buffet.

SHIITAKES

Shiitakes are the second-most popular specialty mushroom and have umbrella-shaped caps with open veils and tan gills. They have a soft, spongy texture and develop a rich and woodsy flavor when cooked. Stems should be removed but can be used to flavor stocks. They adapt to most cooking techniques and add a meaty flavor and texture to stir-fry, pasta, soups, entrees and side dishes.

Mushroom ravioli is a favorite at Antico Pasto, Oak Brook, Ill., says executive chef Russell Bry. He includes mushrooms in at least six entrees or pasta dishes. He uses shiitake mushrooms as a ravioli filling and combines them with other mushroom varieties in sauces.

OYSTERS

Oyster mushrooms are best cooked because they develop a delicate flavor and velvety texture. They can be substituted for or used with white mushrooms. Their flavor goes well with chicken, veal, pork and seafood and in soups and sauces.

Rowe of Mulberry Street Pizzeria says he flash-sautees oyster mushrooms with butter and garlic and adds them to cold lettuce, such as a spring mix salad.

For an appetizer, Foley of Printers Row says he likes to wood-roast oyster mushrooms in an oven with a little garlic oil, along with fresh herbs like basil and thyme or fresh oregano.

ENOKIS

Enoki mushrooms resemble cotton swabs with long, slender stems and tiny caps. They are creamy white and have a mild flavor with a slight crunch. They can be used raw in sandwiches and salads or as a garnish for appetizers, soups, salads and entrees.

“They are one of the few mushrooms that taste good raw or cooked,” says Deborah Knight, chef at Mosaic restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Knight uses enokis in a warm mushroom salad that has an Asian flair, thanks to sake, soy sauce, ginger and shallots. The salad also contains oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Folding in enokis adds brightness and a different texture and freshness, she says.

FIND HELP

The timing couldn’t be better to add mushrooms to your menu.

Charlie Matthews, executive director of the newly formed Eastern Mushroom Marketing Co-operative, Kennett Square, Pa., says mushroom grower-shippers are going all out to give foodservice operators anything they want. Just name the variety, size or packaging you need and chances are you’ll get it, he says. The industry offers almost 100 pack sizes.

For help developing your mushroom menu, the Mushroom Council offers a menu development program, Dompe says.

The council uses consulting chefs who analyze chain restaurant operations and their use of mushrooms. They work closely with corporate chefs on menu goals and objectives and offer suggestions on how to use mushrooms to achieve those goals and objectives, Dompe says.

The council also works with operators on employee incentive programs and training and offers recipe cards and educational materials.