Foraging 101 with Tama Matsuoka Wong

June 3, 2013

Searching in meadows and between the rows of her garden, forager Tama Matsuoka Wong looks to nature for additions to the table. “Foraging” usually calls to mind a deep-woods hunt for mushrooms, but Tama prefers to seek out more accessible varieties of native greens, as documented in her book, Foraged Flavor. She’ll visit Glen Mills for a hands-on workshop on June 22, so we had a few questions in advance.

terrain: What sparked your interest in foraging? 

Tama: I’ve always been interested in the plants around me, and wanted to get to know the ones in my own backyard.  Before I started foraging, I tried planting a vegetable garden, but I didn’t have much time or a very green thumb. I ended up growing mostly weeds, so I decided to pick those instead! 

Foraging near my house lets me have a maintenance-free “garden” that isn’t overly controlled, plus I get to keep learning about plants. I started out by picking edible plants that are documented as safe and easy to identify, so I wasn’t apprehensive about eating them. If you’re nervous about foraging at first, there are also nurseries that sell native, edible plants-- and it can be more responsible to buy varieties that aren’t widespread in the wild.

terrain: How did your collaboration begin with Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at New York restaurant Daniel and contributor to your book? 

Tama: My first memory of foraged plants was eating a bitter, dandelion green salad as a child—not a great experience! When I started foraging as an adult, I found that books about edible plants weren’t very inspiring. All the recipes involved salad, tea, or boiling greens to reduce bitterness.

During my recipe search, I had dinner at Daniel and sent some foraged greens beforehand. I thought if Daniel couldn’t make them good, there was no hope! My ingredients ended up in a shrimp dish and a sorbet instead of the same old salads. After dinner we met Eddy, who was really interested in wild edibles. He said, “Bring me everything!” He offered to buy them, but I asked to trade for recipes. After that, I would bring plants and he’d cook them in various ways to see how they tasted best. Eventually, our recipe trade turned into Foraged Flavor.

terrain: What wild edibles are you looking for this time of year?

Tama: One of my early-summer favorites is Lamb’s Quarters, which are great because they’re sturdy enough to use as a vegetable. They’re similar in flavor and texture to broccoli rabe, and are best cooked. I often use them in place of spinach, too.  I’m also on the lookout for Yellow Wood Sorrel, which has a lemony flavor and is best raw or very lightly wilted since it’s more delicate.

terrain: Later this month, you’ll be leading a workshop in Glen Mills. What’s on the agenda?

Tama: We’ll start off by foraging at Winterthur, a garden in Delaware. Chef Keith Rudolf from the Garden Café is coming along, since he’ll be making lunch with foraged finds. As we search, I’ll share tips for harvesting and storing wild edibles. I’ll also invite everyone to bring cuttings from home for recipe suggestions—I love making new discoveries that way!

Afterward, we’ll have lunch at terrain and mix some cocktails with our finds. One of my specialties is the “meow-jito,” a mojito muddled with catnip instead of mint for a more complex, herbal flavor. We’ll also do a simpler drink with cognac and a Queen Anne’s Lace garnish.

terrain: You’re also involved in meadow restoration. How does the restoration process work, and why is it important to preserve these spaces?

Tama:  I started doing meadow restoration before foraging—my interest in meadows led to looking more closely at individual plants. I seek out wasted spaces, like water retention basins that never get filled, and find ways to make them beautiful and useful without turning them into lawns. When restoring a meadow, try to work with the plants that want to be there, so the space is natural and doesn’t need intensive maintenance. If there are lots invasive species, you might need to seed to reintroduce native plants and wildflowers, then encourage them with a mowing regime. 

On June 22 at 10A, join Tama for a foraging workshop, lunch, and book signing at terrain in Glen Mills. Visit our events page for more details and RSVP information.

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