When you're trying to lose weight, calories are the name of the game. And mushrooms provide a big blast of deliciousness for very few calories. When watching your weight, it's important to take out the fat, not the flavor.
Mushrooms are standard fare in Asian cultures, and Americans are learning to appreciate them for their texture and flavor. They are low in fat and sodium, and they contain a super-powerful flavor enhancer called glutamic acid, the same amino acid (a building block of protein) found in MSG (monosodium glutamate). Besides lending wonderful flavor to foods, mushrooms contribute more nutrition than you might think.
Mushrooms provide an unusual array of nutrients, not unlike those in meat, making them a particularly appropriate food for vegetarians. Cooked mushrooms are an unexpected protein source, which, even though incomplete, is easily complemented by grains. They also shine in iron, riboflavin, and niacin; offer decent amounts of potassium, selenium, copper, and zinc; and they are full of fiber.
Selenium is helpful for the body's glutathione peroxidase, which is a potent antioxidant. Another powerful antioxidant, a phytochemical called L-ergothioneine, is plentiful in portabella and crimini mushrooms (crimini are a common, brownish variety of button mushrooms) and is not destroyed by cooking.
When possible, stick to cooked mushrooms. They're higher in nutrients than raw mushrooms; for the same volume, you get two, three, or even four times the nutrients. That's because cooking removes water from mushrooms, concentrating nutrients and flavor. Moreover, hydrazines, which are toxic natural compounds in raw mushrooms, are eliminated when mushrooms are cooked or dried.
Some researchers have found that cooked enoki, oyster, shiitake, pine, and straw mushrooms, as well as the more popular button mushrooms, have antitumor activity. Wood-ear mushrooms exhibit blood-thinning properties that may help prevent the dangerous clotting that contributes to heart disease.
Selection and Storage
All supermarkets stock the white button mushroom, and many have expanded their selection to include the popular shiitake; trumpet-shaped chanterelle; sprout-like enoki; small, brown, intensely-flavored, spongy-capped morel; huge oyster; hearty-flavored portobello; and crunchy, often dried, Chinese wood-ear.
When selecting button mushrooms, look for those with caps that extend completely down to the stems, with no brown "gills" showing. If mushrooms have "opened," meaning the gills are showing, they are older and won't last as long. They are perfectly acceptable to use, but they'll have a stronger flavor. The color should be creamy white or soft tan. Avoid those that have dark-brown soft spots or long, woody stems. Growers used to add sulfites to the packages to maintain their white color for longer periods of time, but this practice was discontinued, which is good news for those who are allergic to these additives. Mushrooms like cool, humid, circulating air. So store them in a paper bag or ventilated container in your refrigerator, but not in the crisper drawer. Do not store them in a plastic bag; otherwise they'll get slimy. Mushrooms only last a couple of days, but you can still use them for flavoring even after they've turned brown.
A caution: Picking wild mushrooms can be hazardous to your health. There are too many poisonous varieties that fool even the most experienced foragers. So play it safe and stick to cultivated varieties of wild mushrooms.
Preparation and Serving Tips
Don't wash mushrooms; they absorb water like a sponge. Use a mushroom brush or wipe with a barely damp cloth. Don't cut mushrooms until you're ready to use them; they'll darken. Use the trimmed stems to flavor soups. Mushrooms cook quickly. Overcooking makes them rubbery and tough. If you saute, go easy on vegetable oil. They'll absorb it like water and become greasy. Try cooking them in a bit of wine instead. Due to their high water content, mushrooms add liquid to a dish once they cook down.
Mushrooms definitely give you more bang for your caloric buck. To achieve your weight-loss goals, it's important to eat flavorful, satisfying foods so that temptation doesn't have a chance.
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