Mushrooms: Nature’s Wonder Food

by Rachel Mulder | May 1, 2013 2:40 pm

Mushrooms are one of nature’s healthiest foods. They are low in fat and calories and high in protein and fiber. They are known to enhance the immune system and provide essential vitamins and minerals. As well, they are one of the only vegetarian sources of vitamin D2 which is the most bioavailable form of the nutrient. As if that wasn’t enough, mushrooms are also as high in anti-oxidants as many vegetables and full of B vitamins, which boost the metabolism and increase energy.

The most popular mushroom used in American cuisine is the button mushroom and its matured version, the portabella. These mushrooms are incredibly easy to find as all grocery stores, and even some gas stations carry them. It doesn’t have much of it’s own flavor but is very good at picking up the flavors of other vegetables and seasonings. They are a great way to add bulk and protein to a meal without adding meat. Button and portabella mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, which reduces depression and helps your immune system. These mushrooms promote the maturation of dendritic cells (the immune system cells) in bone marrow, which boosts immune function. It is also believed that a special type of carbohydrate in this type boosts your metabolism and aids in weight loss. Button mushrooms are useful in preventing prostate cancer which is great motivation to swap them for the meat in some dishes as meat.

My favorite mushrooms are shiitakes. They can be difficult to find fresh in the United States, but the dried ones can be found at a specialty health or Asian-style markets to be rehydrated for cooking. A lot of people prefer the dried shiitakes because they believe the sun-drying process brings out more of the umami flavor of the mushrooms, which are chewy and rich-tasting. The stems are difficult to chew so they should be used more as a flavoring than for the bulk of the dish. The American Cancer Society says that shiitakes may be useful in preventing/treating cancer because they enhance the immune system. They contain lentinan which is a natural anti-tumor compound. They are also good for lowering cholesterol and inhibiting viruses. Japanese culture believes they boost qi (often translated as life energy) and prevent premature aging. Another mushroom touted to have these benefits is the maitake, especially against breast cancer, though the flavor isn’t as nice.

It seems that everyone’s favorite mushroom in the Omaha area is the morel. Their flavor has been likened to the truffle but it varies depending on the soil it was spored in. Morels are likely so prized because of their short season and the ceremony of their retrieval, as well as their unique taste. We all have that one friend that somehow magically procures bags of morels every year. We beg, plead and threaten them in an attempt to gain access to the enchanted fairy ring, but it seems the only way to they’ll give up their hiding spot is through blood or marriage. If you can’t con someone into taking you mushroom hunting with them, then you’ll have to luck out at the farmers market or find some stranger on Craigslist that sells them.

Porcini mushrooms have become more popular in restaurants, especially in pasta and risotto dishes because they have a nutty, smooth, creamy texture and taste. They are low in fat and digestible carbohydrates, but high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. They also contain ergosterol, which increases cytotoxity, the process of attacking enemy cells. They are also believed to have anti-inflammatory effects.

Oyster mushrooms are another popular choice and are torn up rather than sliced for cooking. They are slightly sweet tasting and versatile and are usually used in stir-fries and sautés but can be used for most anything because they cook so evenly. They are very high in anti-oxidants and iron, and are being studied as a possible defense against HIV.

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