Make Room for Mushrooms
By Chelsea Fisher
Mushrooms have long been essential and delicious ingredients in Mediterranean kitchens, but a wide variety of fungi have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to promote well-being and long life. Their immune boosting capabilities are becoming well known in Western kitchens, and they are currently being studied around the world for their cancer fighting properties.
All edible mushrooms contain a number of antioxidant compounds that can help protect our bodies from free radicals. And they contain important nutrients --including B vitamins, protein, potassium, niacin, selenium, and copper -- that are necessary for maintaining health before, during, and after cancer treatment. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), studies have found that shitake mushrooms have anti-tumor capabilities, and may even be helpful in lowering cholesterol. The ACS also notes that a substance called beta-glucan, found in maitake mushrooms, may have the ability to enhance the benefits of chemotherapy while diminishing some of the side effects such as nausea, pain, and hair loss. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center also found that the maitake variety can enhance immune systems in breast cancer patients.
According to a Tufts University study, even the ordinary, white button mushroom may cause the body to increase the production of specific anti-viral proteins that fight disease and have antitumor capabilities. One warning, however: although these studies are promising, they do not justify the claims made by certain websites promoting mushrooms as a cure for cancer. For now it’s safe to say that mushrooms are a valuable addition to a diet already rich in healthy fruits and vegetables.
Mushrooms may just be the best vegetarian substitute for meat in any meal. Low in calories, with higher amounts of protein than most vegetables, they provide a hearty taste that will leave you feeling satisfied without leaving you hefty.
Here is our glossary of commonly available mushrooms, along with some ideas on how to get your fungi fix. Also, be sure to read our exclusive interview with John Garrone,master of mushrooms and the owner of Far West Fungi in California, in our features section.
Portabella – These are the most widely cultivated mushroom, and are available in large and small varieties. The larger ones are great for grilling and are commonly used as a stand-in for a beef burger. They can also be chopped and used in many of our recipes. Try our Healthy Mac and Cheese, or our Balsamic Sauteed Mushrooms.
Shitake – Shitakes are the second most cultivated mushroom, and are very popular in Asian cuisine. They can be found fresh at many supermarkets, and are often available dried in the Asian foods aisle of many grocery stores, or you can purchase them from trusted vendors online. If you get the dried variety, they need to be rehydrated by dunking them in a bowl of warm water for around 30 minutes. Try using shitakes in our Stovetop Mushroom and Barley Paella for a delicious vegetarian main dish. Also try them in John Garrone’s Sesame Pasta Salad with Two Peas and Shitake.
White button –White button mushrooms are picked young and prized for their white appearance. They have a subtle earthy flavor when raw that increases with cooking. Try sprucing up your white mushrooms with Angelo Garro’s Mushroom Recipe, and using them as a side in your next meal.
Maitake – Also known as hen-of-the-woods, this mushroom has a rich and woodsy taste, and can be sautéed in olive oil as a side, or included in any dish that calls for other mushrooms. Served over brown rice or whole-wheat pasta, they are delicious.
Porcini – These mushrooms are often found in Italian cuisine and have a rich, nutty flavor. They can be a little more expensive than other varieties, but are worth the splurge every once in a while, and can give even the most everyday dishes a gourmet touch. Porcini mushrooms do exactly that in our Brown Rice and Chard Risotto.
In general, when shopping for mushrooms, look for firm dry mushrooms with no dark slimy patches or clammy skin. All mushrooms have a distinctive light, almost sweet smell when fresh. If they smell dank or sour, they are past their prime. Take care especially when buying pre-packaged mushrooms. The plastic film creates condensation that can encourage spoilage in the ‘shrooms underneath, plus the packaging can camouflage not-so-fresh produce.
Mushrooms are very delicate and should never be washed. Washing them can change both their taste and texture. It’s best to simply wipe the top of their caps with damp paper towel, or even cheesecloth to gently remove the dirt.
Button mushrooms should have a clear off-white skin, with an almost silky dry feel to them. Never buy shitake, portabellas, or any other open flat mushrooms, unless you can check their undersides. The gills should be a velvety, pink-brown color with no dark, wet patches.