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Mushrooms 101

When your tastebuds are crying out "Steak!" but your love handles are saying "Vegetables, please!" leave it to us to come up with the ideal alternative: mushrooms.

Possessing meaty flavor and hearty texture, these fungal wonders—that's right, we're telling you to eat fungus—contain a mere 18 calories and zero grams of fat per cup.

NUTRITIONAL VALUE

Mushrooms are no nutritional lightweights. Consider this...

One Portobello, for example, delivers more potassium than a banana. Potassium helps maintain normal heart rhythm, fluid balance, and muscle and nerve function. It can also keep your ticker ticking and your brain thinking: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration notes that foods high in potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

Mushrooms also pack a lot of selenium, which partners with vitamin E to produce antioxidants that neutralize the cell-damaging free radicals that can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. For example, one study, published in the British Journal of Urology, found that men who eat plenty of selenium-rich foods can reduce their risk of prostate cancer.

According to Solomon P. Wasser, Ph.D., editor in chief of the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, compounds in various mushrooms have been found to enhance the overall function of the immune system, fight cancer, and act as natureanalgesic with their anti-inflammatory powers.

While mushroom's health benefits may surprise you, health-care practitioners have actually used them for centuries to treat diseases. In fact, there was once so much faith in the benefits of certain mushrooms, this lowly fungus assumed godlike status. In China, the Reishi goddess was named after the reishi mushroom, worshipped for—no surprise—bringing health, life and eternal youth. Today the study of medicinal mushrooms continues, albeit absent the deities.

Fortunately, there's a mushroom for almost any dish and most any palate. Unfortunately, some methods of preparation can be a lot worse for you than others. For instance, mushrooms seem to have a special affinity for butter. If you choose to sauté them in this fashion, limit yourself to two teaspoons (8g fat, 5g sat. fat) and be sure to use tub butter instead of the trans-fat-loaded stick butter or margarine.

MYTHS AND FACTS

Fact: Mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds, and a mature mushroom will drop as many as 16 billion spores (we counted).
Myth: Pigs are used to dig up truffles. Pigs used to be used to dig up truffles, but they favor the flavor as much as humans do and would literally eat away at the profit margin. These days, specially trained dogs—usually dachshunds—do the dirty work.

Fact: Mushrooms can make you high. "'Shrooms" is the common name for mushrooms that contain psilocybin, which is chemically related to LSD. Users report feelings of mild euphoria, tingling physical sensations, and increased sensitivity to visual sensations and music (usually Phish). As you might expect, possession of fresh or dried 'shrooms is illegal in the U.S.

Myth: All mushrooms are good for you. Sure, except for the ones that kill you. In 2001, members of the American Association of Poison Control Centers fielded 8,483 calls about harmful mushroom exposures, and 38 of them were from people who experienced life-threatening effects. You can avoid making it onto this list by heeding advice your pappy offered when you were 4: Don't pick up strange things and put them in your mouth. If you insist on cutting out the middleman and finding your own fungi, search with a guide or a mushroom club. "Many states or wooded regions have mycological clubs, and they are well prepared to identify mushrooms," says Amy Farges, author of The Mushroom Lover's Mushroom Cookbook and Primer.

Fact: What costs $150 per ounce and will not land you in jail? White truffles. The rarest mushroom, they're so coveted that truffle hunters jealously guard their favorite truffling spots.

COOKING PREP

Don't peel off the thin outer layer during preparation; much of the mushroom's flavor lies in its skin. You can easily brush off residue found on cultivated mushrooms, which grow in special mixtures of sawdust and secret ingredients, but wild mushrooms—which grow in soil—need a more thorough cleaning. Use a soft toothbrush or damp paper towel to clean the caps. Do not soak mushrooms, as they will absorb water like a sponge and ruin their taste. For more specific prepping tips, check out Types of Mushrooms.

See Also:
Types of Mushrooms
Thai Beef Hot & Sour Soup Recipe

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