by Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director
Not a vegetable, nor an animal
One of our Produce Managers recently commented to me that he thought perhaps we were selling mushrooms in the wrong department. He has a point—though we love selling fresh mushrooms in our Produce departments, they aren’t actually fruits or vegetables—in fact they aren’t plants at all. They are fungi, which make up their own biological Kingdom entirely separate from plants or animals. Biologically, mushrooms may be better suited to the meat department, since the cellular structure of fungi is much more similar to that of animals than plants.
Don’t worry, you won’t find mushrooms in our Meat departments anytime soon. This is purely a theoretical exercise.
This biologic distance from plants explains a lot about mushrooms; such as the fact that they are the only non-animal food source of naturally occuring Vitamin D—also known as the sunshine vitamin. Just like us humans (and unlike plants) mushrooms synthesize Vitamin D from ultraviolet light, and they do it well: just 1/3 of a cup of crimini mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light have 1,072 IU of Vitamin D, which is almost double the USDA daily recommended amount of 600 IU.
This time of year, between the cold temperatures and the short days, it can be tough to get all of the Vitamin D we need from the sun. Mushrooms can be a huge help; they’re an easy, delicious, and vegetarian way to add more of this essential nutrient to your diet.
Low Calorie, high umami
Another unique property of mushrooms is their high levels of glutamate, which is the chemical that is responsible for umami.
Umami is one of the five flavors (the others are salty, sweet, bitter, and sour), and is best described as “savory.” It is found most often in meats, cheeses, and broth, and it helps stimulate the appetite and signal our body to feel full. More umami in a dish adds a depth of flavor that can make it easier to cut down on the salt in food without compromising on flavor.
The beautiful thing about the umami flavor of mushrooms is that it doesn’t come with all of the calories or heaviness that are typical of many other foods that are rich in umami such as cheese and meat. Mushrooms add all of the flavor, but in a vegetarian package with just a fraction of the calories.
Blending with ground meat
There are many, many great ways to eat mushrooms. You can stuff them, put them in soup, on pizza, with pasta… I could go on and on. One popular new way to incorporate more mushrooms into your diet deserves a little extra attention—it’s known as “The Blend.”
The idea is simple—chop up fresh mushrooms (either button or crimini work well), mix them with raw ground beef, pork or lamb, and then cook as you would any other recipe that uses ground meat. The mushrooms add moisture, as well as a depth of flavor (remember that umami?), all while cutting the calorie count of your meal. Sounds pretty good, eh? It’s a delicious solution that even a non-mushrooms loving family can get behind. You wouldn’t even know they are there!
Local year round
Fresh mushrooms are one of the other things you’ll find in our Produce departments that are local all year. Since they are typically grown indoors, weather isn’t even a factor.
Wisconsin-grown mushroom varieties you’ll find regularly in our Produce departments include:
The mildest of the common culinary mushrooms, and the least expensive. This white mushroom is a perfect contender for the “blend” technique described above. They are good raw or cooked, and tend to have more flavor after cooking.
Crimini have more Vitamin D than any of the other common culinary mushrooms. They have an earthier flavor than the button mushrooms, making them a great variety to use if you want to maximize that umami flavor.
Portabellas are the largest of the common culinary mushrooms, and size is what drives most recipes that use them. They have large meaty “caps” that let you omit the ground meat altogether and enjoy a burger-sized mushroom slice.
Typically used in Asian cuisine, the shitake mushroom has a unique rich, woodsy flavor and firm meaty texture that is distinct from any other mushroom.
These beautiful fungus have a mild, nutty flavor and delicate texture, with a subtly sweet, almost fruity aroma that lends an unexpected flavor dimension to savory dishes.