Rich in the hearty, meaty flavors of umami, mushrooms can make savory dishes taste more memorable. As intense as mushrooms taste, it may be surprising that they are fat-free, very low in calories and sodium-free. They are also one of the few food sources of vitamin D which helps the body absorb calcium to improve bone health. Research shows that vitamin D (found in mushrooms at up to 400 IU per serving depending on variety) may also play a role in improving cardiovascular disease and boosting immunity.
Foraged wild mushrooms can be found at farmers markets July through October (morels appear briefly in May.) Cultivated mushrooms grown in a compost of straw, corn cobs and cocoa seeds are available year-round in supermarkets. Prolong the freshness of these vegetables by storing them in a ‘breathable’ paper bag. And go ahead, you can wash mushrooms; just don’t soak them. Rinse briefly under running water and dry with an absorbent towel.
All mushrooms are rich in the umami taste sensation; the darker the mushroom, the more umami it contains. Chefs and dietitians have been exploring how umami can be used to increase the savory flavors of a dish and thus allow the use of less sodium. Combining mushrooms with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar can also counter the need for saltiness.
Several techniques can extend the value of these affordable luxuries and help achieve the most intense aromas. Sautéing mushrooms with other aromatics, like garlic and onions, extends the flavor and yields a rich base for stews and sauces or a meaty topper for main dishes and even sandwiches. To retain the deepest flavor from portabellas and other fresh mushrooms, do not remove the gills (but do chop off shitake stems.) Another flavor-boosting trick is to use a combination of economical white button mushrooms along with reconstituted dried mushrooms; rehydrating the dried variety creates an umami-rich soaking liquid that can be used as broth, along with the recipe-ready hydrated mushrooms.
— By Serena Ball, MS, RD, a food writer in Chicago.
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