If you have trouble eating your vegetables — or even if you love them — listen up. A workshop this weekend may turn that pesky bunch of weeds out back into dinner.
Nationally noted author Tama Matsuoka Wong wants to expand your food horizons with her “Foraged Flavor” workshop at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. The workshop is based on her 2012 recipe book and field guide, “Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in your Backyard or Farmer’s Market.”
Meadows and more
A native of Princeton, Wong is a Harvard Law graduate who spent about 20 years in the financial services sector in New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Now, the mother of three has settled back in New Jersey after launching her own ecological conservation effort dubbed “Meadows and More.”
Chatting this week with NewsWorks about the upcoming workshop, Wong said the change in her career, which still includes some consulting work in the winter season, was a gradual one.
“I didn’t really think of it as switching…like looking at a magazine and thinking, oh, I’ll pick up foraging,” she said of her developing interest in preserving natural lands for both ecological and culinary use. “It just kind of happened more and more over time.”
But a major “catalyst” was writing her book, which includes almost 90 recipes for tasty foods you can find growing naturally (or maybe at a good farmers’ market). Her co-author, Eddy Leroux, is chef de cuisine for chef Daniel Boulud’s three-star Michelin restaurant in New York.
It’s there that Wong’s finds as the restaurant’s official forager turn into dishes like “knotweed strawberry crumble” or “stinging nettle-asparagus pizza.”
She continues to share her knowledge with workshops and lectures across the country.
Wong knows that the concept of walking through a meadow, the woods, or even your own backyard and returning with something you’ve picked for dinner is daunting to most people. She said part of the problem is that when it comes to cooking, we don’t pace ourselves.
“If you were going to start cooking, you wouldn’t start with some really complicated foie gras pâté thing,” she explained. “You’d start with something easy, like cinnamon toast.”
Similarly, if you get interested in foraging, the key is to start small. “The idea is not to go around and memorize 150 things that are edible,” adding that many “wild edible” walks can leave participants “sort of overwhelmed.”
“Pick one thing that’s really abundant in your backyard, and get to know the one thing,” she said.
What’s holding us back?
She thinks we’re losing the family, kitchen and food-sourcing lore that was once passed from one generation to the next. “Moms or grandmas would hand it down,” she said. “People now don’t know how to cook anymore.”
Another common block to finding and eating foods away from the grocery store is that many people forget that everything they eat has an optimal season. They might try a perfectly good plant before it’s ready to be harvested, and decide they don’t like it. Successful foraging requires some knowledge of local plants’ life cycle.
Aspiring foragers should also remember that not everything can be eaten right off the bush. “People think if you pick something and try it raw, and it doesn’t taste good that way, then that’s it,” Wong said.
She pointed to chickweed, which can be used raw, like spinach, but can have an unfortunate grassy taste. Cook it with a bit of soy sauce and sesame, and it’s a whole other story, she said.
Mushrooms: the one percent
And of course, not everything is fit for your plate.
“There are things that are poisonous, so just running around eating things isn’t a good idea,” Wong said. That’s why she chooses not to talk about mushrooms at all. According to her, 95% of mushrooms aren’t edible, and 4% are deadly.
On the other hand, there are many plants, like dandelions, that are both easily recognizable and safe to consume. Wong’s website features a forum for readers who can upload a picture of a plant and have it identified by experts.
Wong first became involved at the Schuylkill Center in her capacity as a “meadow doctor,” who assesses the ecological health and biodiversity of these spaces and recommends measures to improve them. When Schuylkill Center staffers found out she had a recipe for mugwort soup, they were thrilled.
In this case, one man’s invasive plant — like a wineberry bush — is another man’s delicacy.
“They have a lot of invasive plants and a number of them were good [to eat],” she said. She recalled asking a previous director, “Do you want this? And he was like, ‘heck no! We need more people to help get rid of this.'”
Her involvement turned into an ongoing relationship that led to this weekend’s workshop, her first at the Center. She’ll start off the session with an introduction to what she does.
“Garden, food, cooking and environment are always these separate little categories, so I’m going to try to show how they’re related and why it’s important,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the ‘Survival Channel.'”
Wong warned that once you start foraging, it’s hard to stop, because it’s what humans are meant to do. “Once you pick one thing and you bring it back and cook it…it’s hard to go back to doing without that.”
Saturday’s “Foraged Flavor” workshop at the Schuylkill Center begins at 11a.m. Pre-registration is required ($7 for members, $10 for non-members). For more information or to register, visit the Schuylkill Center website or call 215-482-7300 x110.