A Foray into Foraging

Tama Matsuoka Wong, forager for the New York City restaurant Daniel and author of a new book on the topic, tells Wine Enthusiast how she perfected the practice.


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“If you’ve picked berries from a bush, you’ve been foraging,” says Tama Matsuoka Wong, a Harvard-trained lawyer-turned-expert forager for the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Daniel. This culinary trend needn’t entail six-mile hikes or years of mycological study, according to Wong. She has discovered gastronomic delights growing wild in the meadow at her New Jersey home.

Her new book, Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer's Market (Clarkson Potter, 2012)—the result of a three-year collaboration with Eddy Leroux, chef de cuisine of restaurant Daniel—provides tools and tips for gathering a grocery list from the wild. Featuring a field guide to help novices identify 71 of America’s tastiest and most nourishing species, it also offers 88 home-style recipes to bring to the table.

Wine Enthusiast: What encouraged you to start foraging?
Tama Matsuoka Wong:
I find a field of wild plants much more alive than a sculpted, designed lawn. There’s a sense of motion and music, and the aromas are more powerful. The last step is taste, so one afternoon I picked some anise hyssop and crushed the leaves into a glass of Prosecco. It was a while before I learned this was called foraging. 

W.E.: How did you meet the chefs at Daniel?
TMW:
I had no introduction. In June 2009, friends invited [me] to dinner at Daniel and urged me to bring plants from my meadow. I hesitated, as offering ingredients to a chef I didn’t know felt a bit pushy. ‘They should know what you’re doing,’ my friend insisted. Since I was working ten blocks away, I walked over early in the day and presented Daniel’s receptionist with a bag of freshly picked plants, a booklet on my meadow and a request for the chef to use them in our dinner, if possible. Six hours later, two amazing dishes appeared: a starter of shrimp and melon with anise hyssop vinaigrette and a dessert of anise hyssop and yuzu sorbet.

‘What else do you have in your meadow?’ chef Eddy Leroux asked me after dinner. ‘Bring me everything.’ I warned [him] that when I promise to do something, I actually carry through, which he met with ‘bien sûr!’ Eddy seemed puzzled when I asked for recipes in lieu of pay, but his careful examination and meticulous documentation of everything I brought soon made it clear he was committed to what we now called ‘The Project.’

W.E.: How did The Project become a book?
TMW:
Every week when I came to New York, I’d bring whatever looked good in the meadow for Eddy: large garbage bags filled with plants that attracted the immediate attention of PATH [New Jersey Transit] train security guards. We didn’t have a business plan because this wasn’t about money. It was about knowledge. Still, I’ve found that if you build something of value the rest often comes, and by now Eddy’s enthusiasm and diligence had produced a priceless well of knowledge. So when the Noma [restaurant in Copenhagan] phenomenon created an interest in books on foraging—thank you [Noma chef]  René Redzepi—we were ready.

W.E.: How did you learn to forage?
TMW:
Ten years ago I could only identify two plants: dandelion and oak. So I began to tag along on conservation group field tours and ask questions at farmer’s markets, building my knowledge little by little. I can now identify hundreds of plants in my meadow and beyond. It feels like an organic process since I understand the human brain has evolved to recall visual images like plants more easily than computer instructions or cell phone numbers.

W.E.: Is the taste profile of wild plants different from that of cultivated plants?
TMW:
Wild plants have more kick and a more complex taste; they can be both sweet and sour, or tart at the beginning, with a bite at the end. Mix the leaves together and the result is even more variegated. They have blemishes since they’re not ‘airbrushed’ to sit on a shelf like Hollywood stars, with a taste that’s more variable from plant to plant—one a little sweeter, the next more bitter—so chefs often have to taste a dish and adjust.  

W.E.: What are the most surprising plants you’ve found to be edible?
TMW:
Pine needles and spruce tips. I cut Eddy some pine branches in the dead of winter when the only thing on the ground was snow and was astonished when he sniffed and lit up. ‘Oh yes, I remember something,’ he said. He baked turbot on a bed of pine needles whose flavor infused the fish, added pine nuts, porcini sauce and toasted the needles to resemble crumbly sesame sticks. I never thought I’d be eating pine needles, but the dish is now a favorite on Daniel’s menu.

W.E.: What are your most crucial foraging rules?
TMW:
First, get permission, which is both courteous and safe since the owner will know if the field has been sprayed or polluted.

Second, be sure of your plant’s identification. You don’t want to traipse through a field randomly sampling. If you’re not carrying a field guide, you can gather plants or take pictures to ID at home, or download the Foraged Flavor eBook to your iPhone.

Ninety percent of the time, I don’t wear gloves because I need to feel the texture; chefs like tender plants. But I’m always wearing boots, even in summer, which gives me a different attitude, [I’m] bolder about tromping through fields with less worry about insects and ticks. The absolute worst thing to wear is long pants over sneakers with all these lovely crevices, which is like telling a tick, ‘Grab on for a ride!’

W.E.: What do you find most inspiring about foraging?
TMW:
There’s something very real about foraging. So much of our time is spent on conceptual debate, but when you find a plant that seems to have magically sprung up, pick it and transform it into a meal, the process has a powerful immediacy. Simply being outside for a long period of time, not biking or walking from point A to point B, but slowing down to focus on searching for something, is rejuvenating. And as foraging appears across so many cultures—the Japanese Nanakusa-no-sekku, celebrating seven wild herbs of spring; the Korean namul, where mothers and daughters gather spring herbs—I see a ritual so fundamental that it reaches back to the time before we had food markets.

Sumac and Fig Tart

Recipe reprinted with permission from Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer's Market (Clarkson Potter, 2012), by Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy Leroux.

1 pound frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
¾ cup dried sumac spice, plus 2 tablespoons, prepared ahead (recipe below)
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup almond flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
16 medium black mission figs, sliced
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Preheat an oven to 375°F.

Roll out the puff pastry on parchment paper to fit an 18’ x 13’ baking sheet. Pinch the edges so that they are slighted raised. Brush the puff pastry surface with the beaten egg yolk.

In a mixing bowl, combine the ¾ cup sumac spice, granulated sugar, almond flour and butter. Spread over the surface of the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border. Layer the fig slices in rows on top. Bake for 10 minutes, then decrease the oven temperature to 325°F and bake for another 20 minutes, or until the top is puffed and golden. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let cool for 30 minutes.

Mix the remaining 2 tablespoons of sumac spice with confectioners’ sugar and sprinkle evenly over the tart. Serves 4–6.

For the dried sumac spice
8–10 sumac berry clusters, broken apart with core removed

To make the dried sumac spice:
Immerse sumac berries in 8 cups of cold water for a few hours. The water will turn jewel-like red and can be strained for Sumac-Ade.

Preheat an oven to 200°F.

Spread the berries on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the warm oven for about 3 hours, or until dry, then grind. Store in an airtight container. Makes 2½ cups.

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