Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post on healthful eating. This week, Mindy Athas, RD, CSO, LDN, writes about mushrooms.
Low in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium, yet rich in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, mushrooms really are magical. Consider adding them to your table in a myriad of delicious ways.
For a majestic start, consider stuffed mushroom caps or try a wild mushroom soup. An easy meal can be pasta and sauteed shiitakes or a salad entree topped with white buttons or criminis. Or substitute your regular burger with portabello “meat.”
A fungus among us
Although often considered a vegetable or herb, the mushroom is actually in the kingdom fungi. The nutritional composition of mushrooms is more similar to foods of protein origin than vegetables, although they contain many of the same antioxidant-rich vitamins and minerals which make eating produce so healthy. These include B-vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, selenium and phosphorus. The animal-like benefits of mushrooms include protein, iron, vitamin A and vitamin D (primarily in maitake mushrooms).
A dirty job
The humble mushroom starts life in the dark, damp dirt. It grows by feeding off decaying plant and animal matter, which is a benefit to the environment, as important nutrients are returned to the soil. The porous spore cap of the mushroom grows above ground and is supported by the stem, or mycelium, which is a complex series of microscopic threads, much like a root system in a plant.
Unlike plants, however, mushrooms do not use chlorophyll to grow or reproduce, so they need no sunlight. Instead, the mycelium uses rotting wood or manure as biochemical decomposition to provide the energy for growth. This makes them not only tasty, but sustainable.
Most mushrooms today are grown in a controlled environment on farms. Morels, interestingly, are a form of above-ground mushroom but are more difficult to acquire and many may be poisonous. Note that truffles are different from mushrooms as they grow underground, making them more difficult to acquire and as such, a more high-end culinary delicacy. If it is the prized truffle you seek, beware of truffle oil as it rarely contains actual truffles.
Out of the more than 14,000 types of mushrooms in the world, only about 3,000 are edible. The most commonly used mushroom in the U.S. is the white button. Variations include the cremini, or brown mushroom, and the portabello, which is ideal as a meat substitute owing to its beefy flavor and hearty texture.
In the kitchen
Mushrooms have a great texture that holds up under most types of cooking. Cooking may intensify their flavor and aid with digestibility, but eating them raw is fine too. Just don’t go in the woods to pick them after the next heavy rain, however, as some mushrooms may be poisonous and can be difficult to differentiate. Unless you’re an expert forager, stick with ones you can get at the food store or a reputable source.
Mushrooms are a great addition to most dishes: appetizers, soups, stews, salads, sandwiches, sautes, stir-fries, casseroles, egg dishes including quiche, and as accents to roasts and burgers. They are versatile and easy to store, prepare and cook. They handle heat and both wet and dry cooking methods. Their flavors vary from subtle to intense but they can just as easily meld within the sauces and dishes with which they are cooked.
What to buy
Choose raw, fresh mushrooms with a smooth, firm texture without spots or slime; avoid canned ones, which can really sap your sodium budget. If you dislike the flavor, add fresh herbs or dried spices while cooking or try marinating them before eating.
Dried mushrooms can also be useful and may be stored in the freezer for up to a year. Keep fresh mushrooms for up to seven days in a paper bag or their original container in the refrigerator.
When preparing fresh mushrooms, wipe them clean with a damp cloth or paper towel, or use a mushroom brush. Due to their porous nature, cleaning them under running water may cause them to become soggy. If you have an excess of mushrooms that can’t be used before decaying, try freezing or drying them.
Small but mighty
Mushrooms are being studied for their health benefits. These may include anti-bacterial, anti-viral, cholesterol-lowering, blood-sugar-lowering, anti-tumor and chemoprotective properties. They appear to be metabolically active, which may help stimulate the immune system and fight infection.
They have antioxidant properties and may aid with satiety, an important component of weight management.
Although mushrooms have a long history of medicinal properties, it is not recommended to take supplements, pills, extracts or powders; instead, use them either fresh or dried.
Due to their high water content and fiber, mushrooms make a great weight-loss food choice. They help you to feel full and may have a glucose-lowering effect that also aids with satiety. You can pop them raw as a snack, toss them into salads and soups, or add them to your roasted veggie platter. Take advantage of their moisture and cook them in their own juices, without butter or oil. Being so low-calorie and filling, they should be front-and-center in your diet plan.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun