If you have a question about mushrooms, Bart Minor is your guy. As the president and chief executive of the Mushroom Council for 16 years, he has a stunning depth of knowledge about edible fungi and an alarming enthusiasm about them.
Minor could talk forever about enokis (they are grown in plastic bottles), industry sales (a record $1.1 billion for 2012-13 in the United States) or nutrition (mushrooms are the only item in the produce aisle containing vitamin D).
But Minor is particularly excited about what he sees as the latest miracle of mushrooms: their ability to mix with and boost the flavors of ground meat in foods such as burgers and chili while simultaneously cutting calories, fat and costs. A sensory study funded by the council, to be published in the Journal of Food Science this fall, showed that consumers generally preferred meat-mushroom blends in tacos over a 100 percent beef filling, citing increased aromas, flavors and moisture.
“You can make things healthier by putting broccoli in it. You can make things cheaper by putting soy in it,” Minor says. “This is revolutionary, because it’s so simple. It’s meat and mushrooms. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.”
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Clearly, Minor has skin in the game. If chefs and restaurant operators see what the industry calls “blendability” as an easy way to serve healthier food, his members are going to sell a lot more mushrooms. But then, the man does have a point. In an industry that thrives on giving customers what they want, the best way to get people to improve their diets is to find healthful foods that don’t taste like a sacrifice.
No wonder, then, that the Cheesecake Factory and Seasons 52 restaurant chains recently added meat-mushroom burgers to their menus. Institutions including Yale, Harvard and the University of Southern California use mushrooms in Bolognese sauces, taco fillings and chili. Compass Group, one of the world’s largest food-service operators, is encouraging its cafes to do the same; more than 300 locations have already signed on.
Mixing meat and mushrooms, Minor admits, is hardly a novel idea. Beef dishes such as Wellington and stroganoff are classics because the pairing with mushrooms is a natural one. But positioning blends as a healthful and more ecofriendly alternative is new. The evidence is compelling: Substituting mushrooms for just one-quarter of a recipe’s beef content reduces calories, fat and sodium by about a third. Because livestock production and distribution accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, eating less meat is also environmentally responsible.
The push for blending started in 2011, when the Mushroom Council, an industry trade group, joined a Culinary Institute of America initiative called the Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. Participants, which include McDonald’s, Panera, Compass and Cargill, aim to develop practical ways to expand healthful dining choices.
Chefs at the CIA in Napa, Calif., worked to develop recipes that substituted mushrooms for ground beef. At an early tasting, Minor says, the dishes “tasted good, but the texture was wrong.” For a follow-up, chefs quartered button mushrooms, cooked them, then minced them to mimic the texture of ground beef. “That,” he says, “was the aha moment.”
Even though the Mushroom Council study found that consumers preferred a 50-50 blend of beef and mushrooms over the all-beef taco filling, some fine-dining chefs – many of whom have been using that technique for years – say 20 percent mushrooms is about the limit before the dish starts to taste too much of mushrooms.
“At 20 percent, people don’t realize,” Jehangir Mehta, executive chef of Graffiti in New York, says of his signature burger – although the recipe he provided for it uses 6 ounces of mushrooms for 1 pound of beef, or about 27 percent. “It just tastes like a very flavorful burger.”
Dwayne Motley, executive chef of Nage in Washington, D.C., agrees that the 80-20 ratio provides the right balance: “It gives you a depth of flavor, but you still taste the meat, the cheese, the garlic, everything.”
To make his Angus burgers, Motley first makes duxelles, the classic French mixture of mushrooms, aromatics and seasonings; he uses a blend of creminis and portobellos, plus morels when they are in season. He finely chops the mushrooms and cooks the mixture twice to release any remaining liquid. Then he combines it with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Worcestershire sauce, oregano and ground beef. The resulting burgers are served with cheese and a few drops of truffle oil.
Neither Motley nor Mehta says he uses mushrooms to make his food more healthful: That’s just a bonus. And that, says Minor, is the beauty of blendability: “The bottom line is that people in America love burgers. People know they are supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables. If we are actually going to change things for them, we need to improve the things they eat most often.”
Basic Mushroom Meat Blend
8 servings (makes 4 cups)
A batch of this mixture – whether it’s made with ground beef, ground pork, ground turkey or ground chicken – is handy to have on hand for lasagna layering or fillings for crepes, tacos, meat pies and more.
The mushrooms add moisture and flavor. They won’t chop so well in a blender, so if you don’t have a food processor, take the time to chop them finely by hand to enable them to cook down quickly.
The cooked mixture can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to six months.
1 pound white button mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and coarsely chopped (see headnote)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
1 pound ground chicken, turkey, pork or lean ground beef
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Place the chopped mushrooms in a food processor; pulse until almost pureed. The consistency will resemble that of tapenade.
Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the mushrooms and half of the salt. Cook, stirring often, for eight to 10 minutes. Some, but not all, of the mushrooms’ moisture will have evaporated.
Add the ground meat, pepper, the Worcestershire sauce and the remaining salt, stirring to incorporate. Cook, stirring often to break up the meat, for 10 to 12 minutes (depending on which meat you’ve chosen) until cooked through. Add water by the tablespoon during that time if the mixture seems dry before the meat is done.
If you’re using the blend right away, drain any remaining liquid from the skillet. For cold storage, retain the liquid; drain before using.
Nutrition Per serving (using ground white-meat chicken): 120 calories, 15 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 780 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
Adapted from a recipe by the Culinary Institute of America and the Mushroom Council.
Mushroom-Blended Graffiti Burgers
A mix of mushrooms, vegetables and spices brings lots of moisture and flavor to these meaty-tasting burgers – a signature dish at Graffiti in New York.
The mixture can be shaped into 24 thick, slider-size patties instead or grilled over a moderate, direct-heat fire.
It’s best not to let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for more than the recommended four hours, as its mushroom content will exude liquid. The uncooked patties can be frozen for up to one month. Defrost on a plate in the refrigerator for two hours, then drain before cooking.
2 1/2 ounces portobello mushroom caps, gills removed
2 1/2 ounces king oyster mushrooms (may substitute a gourmet mix of sliced mushrooms)
1 ounce white button mushrooms
1 pound ground beef, preferably 85-15 (lean meat/fat)
2 tablespoons finely diced onion
1 tablespoon seeded, finely diced tomato
2 teaspoons finely chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon peeled, finely grated fresh ginger root
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 small red bird’s-eye chili pepper, seeded and minced
1/3 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/3 teaspoon onion powder
1/3 teaspoon tomato powder (optional; see note at bottom)
1/3 teaspoon ground coriander
1/3 teaspoon chili powder
1/3 teaspoon lemon grass powder (optional)
Brioche buns, for serving (optional)
Clean the portobello, king oyster and white button mushrooms; stem the white button mushrooms. Finely chop them, or grind them in a food processor, to about the same consistency as the meat. Transfer to a large mixing bowl; add the ground beef, onion, tomato, cilantro, ginger, garlic, red chili pepper, turmeric, onion powder, tomato powder (if using), ground coriander, chili powder and lemon grass powder (if using).
Use your clean hands to gently blend the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours and no more than four hours.
Spray a grill pan with cooking oil spray; heat over medium heat.
Meanwhile, shape the mixture into eight thick patties of equal size. Lightly salt both sides of each patty; place on a plate or paper towels to catch any juices.
Working in batches as needed, arrange the patties in the hot grill pan, leaving at least an inch of space around each one. Cook for six to eight minutes or until a good crust forms on the bottom, then use two spatulas to carefully turn each one over. Cook on the second side for about eight minutes or until firm to the touch and cooked through. The burgers should not be pink inside.
Serve on buns, if desired.
NOTE: You can make tomato powder by grinding freeze-dried or dehydrated tomatoes. Look for Just Tomatoes at natural-foods stores.
Nutrition Per serving: 130 calories, 11 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 70 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Adapted from a recipe by Jehangir Mehta, chef-owner of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants in New York