Cook of the Week: Hunt for mushrooms rekindles a love of cooking

Nicolette Matt does not limit finding food to a backyard garden.

Nicolette travels to open land such as state parks and fields to forage for mushrooms, a hobby introduced to her by a friend.

And the Libertyville resident credits this hobby for reigniting her love of cooking. She said mushrooms such as maitake and chanterelles deserve finding a special way to prepare them.

“When discovering these ingredients, which can be pretty expensive to buy, you want to do them justice. Like a bottle of wine, you don't want to throw them into some tomato sauce. You want to find out how to pick up their nuisances and flavors,” she said.

Nicolette said there are many varieties of mushrooms, each with its own texture and flavor profile. This past year, maitake, oyster and morels were easier to find. But she adds it's also fun to come across for rare varieties. To prepare the puffball, which looks like a large white soccer ball, she batters and fries them. The entoloma, which she says has a slight fishy taste, was combined with a saffron cream sauce.

To learn more about mushroom hunting, Nicolette recommends joining the Illinois Mycological Society. The group plans forays to identify edible mushrooms. There also are monthly meetings to educate those new to mycology and allow experienced hunters to expand their knowledge.

“It's like a mushroom spreading itself. One person passes information to another, and it's all encompassing when you start getting into it,” she said.

Nicolette does not limit using mushrooms to the kitchen. She combines dried polypore mushrooms such as turkey tail and maze oak along with stones and crystals to make jewelry. She sells necklaces, earrings and headbands at local craft fairs and on her website,

“They are pretty unknown,” she said about the mushrooms she uses. “They have different color bands and they are slightly soft even though they are dry and hard. They have a velvety texture.”

Her inventive use of mushrooms also has earned her some kudos. Her recipe for an Italian-style shiitake pecan burger won second prize in the Mushroom Council's “Swap It or Top It Recipe Challenge.” Combining toasted pecans, parmesan cheese, shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, bread crumbs and sauce, her burger bested 300-plus other recipes.

“I look at the process of preparing food as part science, part smell before even tasting, part culture, part nature, part puzzle, a dash of salt and pepper and a handful of heart,” she said.

Even though she loves vegetables, she and husband Joshua eat meat too, adding “I make some pretty mean ribs.”

“We would like to learn more about making our own sausage and charcuterie, but that will probably have to be next year's project,” she said.

Morel Bomba Stuffed Cabbage with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Tequila Lime Salsa

Italian Style Shiitake Pecan Burgers

  Cook of the Week Nicolette Matt of Libertyville stirs caramelized onions as she makes her recipe for an Italian-style shiitake mushroom pecan burgers. The recipe won second place in a mushroom recipe contest. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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