The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to food these days, fresh is certainly thought of as best. But Maryland winters give us scant local bounty to work with, and produce trucked in from far away often suffers for its journey. So this is the time of year when the savvy cook bucks the conventional wisdom and dares to break out a few key items that, canned or dried, can be just as good as - or better than - their fresh counterparts.

Call it convenience, but canned beans and plum tomatoes are ideal in dishes that benefit from a few hours' aging as flavors meld, such as chilis, stews and soups. Canned pumpkin puree makes delicious muffins, breads and, of course, pies without the mess of chopping the farmer's version. And dried mushrooms add concentrated flavor for much less than you might pay for fresh. I recently pulled three-year-old, imperviously packaged dried shiitakes from the depths of my pantry, and the texture and taste were as if I had just made a run to Han Ah Reum, the Korean mega-market in Catonsville.

Dried mushrooms are easily reconstituted, with a few caveats. Hot water is faster, but the mushrooms tend to leach a lot of flavor into the liquid. Though that's not necessarily a bad thing if the liquid is needed for the recipe, certain types of mushrooms, such as hen of the woods, lose almost all taste if they're blasted with too much heat. If no extra liquid is specified, plan ahead and rehydrate your dried mushrooms in cold water. Either way, use as little water as possible, but do make sure there's enough for these sponges to fully plump up.

The other plus to dried mushrooms: Dried versions of uncommon fresh varieties can be readily available. I came up empty on a local search for fresh porcini mushrooms (also known as cepes), yet I found packaged dried ones all over town. And the economics of dried fungi start to really make sense when you consider that 9 to 10 pounds of fresh mushrooms are dehydrated to create 1 pound of dried.

A perfect use of dried porcini and shiitake mushrooms is Martha Stewart's iconic Polish Mushroom Soup. I have adapted the recipe and exchanged her beef stock for a vegetable one to make this soup appropriate for vegetarians and those who keep kosher. Wood ear mushrooms flavor a delicate Chinese Mushroom Soup that I always refer to as comfort in a bowl. It's perfect for the coming Chinese New Year.

Those of us with a passion for pumpkin in pies, breads and muffins would endure hours of seeding, peeling, chopping, roasting and pureeing if it guaranteed tastier results. And it does not. I get the same undazzling taste and stringy texture from pureeing heirloom pumpkins as I do from regular ones. So I never looked back from using canned pumpkin puree when a perusal of the Libby's can revealed that the pumpkin within was mixed with other squash, no doubt to pump up the taste.

A pumpkin muffin from Elizabeth Alston's 1985 book, Muffins, is, hands-down, my most-requested muffin. Made with chocolate chips, almonds and canned pumpkin, it's even more delicious, I think, as a mini-muffin.

I'm passionate about plum tomatoes from a can. Cento plum tomatoes with basil leaf, which I order by the case at Eddie's Market in Charles Village, are so good that I use them in the summer when sacrificing heirlooms from my garden or the farmers' markets wouldn't improve the flavor of a chili or a sauce bound for already labor-intensive lasagna or moussaka.

Here, as with exotic mushrooms and pumpkins - fancy and not so much - convenience actually costs less.

Recipes in today's You section were analyzed by registered dietitian Jodie Shield.

chinese mushroom soup

(serves 4)

1/2 ounce dried wood ear mushrooms (see note)

4 ounces dried, thin Chinese egg noodles

2 teaspoons arrowroot or cornstarch

4 cups vegetable stock

one 2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 teaspoons mirin

1 teaspoon rice vinegar

4 small bok choy, each cut in half

salt and pepper to taste

snipped fresh Chinese or ordinary chives, to garnish

Put the dried wood ear mushrooms in a bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Let stand for 20 minutes, or until plumped and tender. Boil the noodles for 3 minutes, until soft, or follow package directions. Drain well and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking; set aside.

Strain the mushrooms through a strainer lined with a dishcloth and reserve the liquid. Leave the mushrooms whole or slice them, depending on the size.

Put the arrowroot or cornstarch in a wok or large pan and gradually stir in the reserved mushroom liquid. Add the vegetable stock, sliced gingerroot, soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, mushrooms and bok choy and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.

Lower the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the pieces of ginger. Divide the noodles between 4 bowls, then spoon the soup over and garnish with chives.

Note: We found dried wood ear mushrooms at Whole Foods Market.

From "Noodles," by Beverly Le Blanc

Per serving: : 165 calories, 6 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 30 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 834 milligrams sodium

chocolate-chip-pumpkin muffins

(makes 12 regular muffins or 48 mini muffins)

1/2 cup (1 1/4 ounces) sliced unblanched almonds

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup plain pumpkin (half a 1-pound can)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

1 cup (6 ounces) chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put almonds on a baking sheet and bake about 5 minutes, just until lightly browned. Watch carefully so almonds don't burn. Slide almonds off the baking sheet so they cool quickly. Grease muffin cups, or use foil or paper baking cups.

Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, pie spice, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a bowl.

Break eggs into another bowl. Add pumpkin and butter, and whisk until well blended. Stir in chocolate chips and almonds.

Pour over dry ingredients and fold in with a rubber spatula, just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Scoop batter evenly into muffin cups. Bake 20 to 25 minutes (about 5 minutes less for mini muffins), or until puffed and springy to the touch in the center. Turn out onto a rack to cool.

From "Muffins," by Elizabeth Alston (Clarkson N. Potter, 1985)

Per muffin (based on 12 muffins): : 295 calories, 4 grams protein, 14 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 41 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 177 milligrams sodium

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