On a magnificent fall day, with the wind rustling the russet leaves, you may want to drink it all in. You can, thanks to Tama Matsuoka Wong, whose book, “Foraged Flavor” (Clarkson Potter, 2012), shows you how to turn wild plants, weeds, and invasives (plants not native to the area) into food and drink. Her sumac-ade is a bright red thirst quencher and can even be incorporated into a cocktail.
What sets Wong apart from the hordes of wild edibles book writers is that hers is filled with recipes that will bring on epicurean ecstasy. “Foraged Flavor” is not about how to boil cattail for survival when you’ve been lost in the woods for five days — although she does offer recipes for pickled cattail shoots and summer rolls with cattail and trout. For “Foraged Flavor,” Wong teamed up with chef Eddy Leroux of New York’s Michelin triple-starred restaurant Daniel to create palate pleasers from purslane, creeping Jenny, wild mustard greens, daylilies, and wisteria flowers.
Wong and chef Mark Drabich, owner of Metropolitan Seafood and Gourmet Products in Lebanon, New Jersey, will prepare a five-course dinner of foraged flavor Saturday, November 1, at Brick Farm Market in Hopewell. The event is sold out, but there is a waiting list. The Princeton native’s wild foraged produce is regularly served at New York City’s Daniel, Gramercy Tavern, ACME, Marc Forgione, and others, and some of her specialty products are sold at Brick, which offers other themed market dinners.
Wong lives on 28 acres in the Flemington countryside, surrounded by preserved land on a winding road. Enter through the deer gate and you’re in another world, where wild plants are free to do it their way. Wong describes her land as a flood plain of the Wickecheokee Creek, where it is hard to grow plants. Since moving here in 2003 with her husband and three daughters, Wong has planted phlox, aster, and black-eyed Susan, all of which have migrated to places where the sun and soil were more to their liking.
“People try to drain wetlands,” says Wong, who opted instead for a rain garden with a swale. “Water flows from the ridge to the creek, and we’ve planted plants that like to get their roots wet and soak up the water so there’s no flooding.” In 2007 Wong won the New Jersey Forest Stewardship Award from the state Forest Service.
Mown paths wend their way through fields of eupatorium (Joe Pyeweed), goldenrod, and Indian grass. “It’s all purple in August and September and attracts butterflies and dragonflies,” she says. To sustain the wildflower meadow, it is mowed once a year, usually in spring. Her meadow started out feeding wildlife before Wong realized it could also feed her family. She wrote “Meadows on the Menu: Recipes for Creating a New Jersey Native Wildflower Meadow” for the New Jersey Audubon Society in 2008.
Within the wild foliage, alive with birds, butterflies, and insects, are several buildings: a stone blacksmith cottage and a modernized building where Wil Wong, an architect, has an office. Tama has taken over part of the building for refrigerating her freshly harvested edibles. There is a fig tree along the path to the door, and from the refrigerator she takes out chestnuts — these are a cross between the American and Chinese chestnuts, a strain under development to help replace the American chestnut, wiped out by blight in the 20th century. The nuts are smaller than the European chestnuts enjoyed from New York street vendors in November, but moister and fresher.
One enters the main house through a back porch the family added on to the centuries-old farmhouse. It looks out onto the meadow and a garden with raised beds, surrounded by a fence made of local twigs. In the beginning Wong tried growing vegetables in these raised beds but couldn’t keep up with the weeds until she discovered the weeds were also edible. “You don’t have to go to the Adirondacks to forage,” she says. “You can do it right in your backyard.”
One method she used to jumpstart a native plant bed, framed with the wood from a tree that fell during Hurricane Sandy, was to get the spent soil from a native plant nursery. It was rife with seeds for shiso, yellow wood sorrel, baby chickweed, dock, wild rocket, and dandelion. “A wild edible garden is not as much work as a vegetable garden because you don’t have to keep on top of it. You can go away, but just watch out for invasives.”
Growing now is foxtail millet, which looks like a grassy weed but provides a gluten-free grain that can be used in granola. (Wong has a recipe for the granola at food52.com.) She puts the dried plants into a plastic bucket, shakes, and voila — millet.
Alongside the fence is a sumac tree she is cultivating, with a fence to protect it from deer. In addition to sumac-ade, she makes za’atar, a Lebanese seasoning made with sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds. Chef Drabich, of Lebanese descent, will be making flatbread upon which za’atar will be sprinkled for the Brick dinner.
Just ripening at the edge of the garden is pawpaw, a native tree whose fruit is shaped like a mango and has a banana-y flavor. She uses it to make pawpaw hickory nut breakfast cake. Bent Spoon is making a pawpaw sorbet for which Wong is foraging from a two-acre pawpaw farm in Pennsylvania — it is available at Brick.
If a tree grows on a farm, can you still call it wild? Can you still use the word foraging? Wild farming, Wong says, uses no fertilization or irrigation, just lets the plants grow the way they do in nature, but lightly managed.
A mile or so up the road Wong is experimenting with wild-farmed sumac. Begun with a Kickstarter campaign, she planted male and female specimens. “Sumac is high in vitamins A and C and has more antioxidants than blueberries,” she says. It is ideally harvested in late August to early September, before the berries dry out.
The za’atar typically available in spice shops is made with a Turkish sumac. “The native sumac is so much better, tart and fresh with cherry notes,” says Wong.
The native sumac along roadsides is Staghorn sumac. Poison sumac has small white berries in loose clusters and is easily distinguished from the red sumac. Nevertheless, it is not advisable for a novice to forage for edibles for a number of reasons, ranging from over harvesting and misidentification, lack of permission from landowners, and knowing whether the plants were sprayed. Wong advocates growing your own wild edibles. “My philosophy is, it’s OK to pick non-native invasives in the wild because it’s a way of controlling them,” she says. “Foraging is tied to stewardship.”
The deer, too, love sumac, so Wong must protect the trees. What about those deer? Shouldn’t someone forage for them, too? They are an invasive species with no predators other than humans and are destroying the native growth understory. Wouldn’t it be better for meat eaters to consume wild deer, rather than raising beef on industrial farms? Wong hasn’t tackled that topic yet, but Wil shoots and dresses deer. “He has them in the freezer,” she says.
Born in Princeton, Wong (nee Matsuoka) grew up in Basking Ridge, where her mother tried to get her to eat dandelion greens from the garden. Wong’s mother had “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” the bible of wild edibles, by Euell Gibbons. “She loved gardening and feeling the dirt,” says Wong, whose sentiments about her mother’s bitter dandelion greens salad were not quite as adoring. Along with Wong’s father, a scientist for Bell Labs, the family went berry picking.
Now Wong realizes the value of bitter greens, much higher in phytonutrients than plants that have had these bred out. “Wild dandelions have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach — it’s the glue that holds vitamins together to help the body absorb them. Wild foods have not been coddled, made starchy and sweet — they had to survive, and put out chemicals to combat insects in order to thrive. These chemicals are phytonutrients and antioxidants. If you pamper your food too much it becomes soft and weak.” (This topic is explored further in Jo Robinson’s “Eating on the Wild Side.”)
“Foraged Flavor” includes recipes for dandelion flower jelly and tempura, among others. “You have to pick dandelion greens before the plant flowers, when they are tender and sweet. Any food is better when it’s juicy and sweet.” She pairs dandelion greens with meat marinated in a mirin sauce, with potato salad and bacon, finished with a sherry vinaigrette “which gives it a bite.”
As an undergraduate at Brandeis, Wong majored in American Studies. After Harvard Law School, she worked for more than 25 years as a financial services lawyer in Tokyo, New York, and Hong Kong. She met Wil, a Toronto native, in Tokyo through mutual friends — he had studied at Princeton and worked for Michael Graves in the 1980s. All three daughters were born in Hong Kong. “They are into food,” says Wong of her recipe testers and helpers. “All Chinese people are into food. The girls grew up eating dim sum every weekend.”
The family moved back to the U.S. in the early 2000s, first to Plainsboro before settling in Hunterdon County.
In 2009 friends from Princeton invited Tama and Wil to dine at Daniel in New York — Wong had never heard of restaurateur Daniel Boulud. The friends told Wong to bring some plants from her meadow. She brought these in a plastic bag and, also at the suggestion of the friends, explained the terroir, presenting the booklet she had produced for the New Jersey Audubon Society, and asked if they could be cooked into the evening’s meal. Chef Leroux prepared two dishes, and later Wong went into the kitchen to thank him. He asked if she had more, and when she asked what he would like, he replied “everything.”
Wong was still working as a lawyer, and thus began her weekly commutes with a large plastic garbage bag filled with wild plants, squeezing in with fellow train passengers, and then walking 10 blocks with her sack. Leroux offered to pay, but for the first year, Wong only asked for recipes in exchange.
All three Wong daughters went to PDS, and it was through PDS that Wong met Robin and Jon McConaughy, owners of Brick Farm Market, who farm hundreds of acres in the Hopewell area. Wong has partnered with them to harvest wild edibles.
Meadows and More, Wong’s business, now employs 10 people and two interns to help with foraging and processing. She gives talks on the topics of foraging, stewardship, culinary traditions, and plant ecology.
In her large country kitchen, Wong is making fruit leather from autumn olives. The tree, popular for landscaping in the mid to late 20th century, is now known to be a major non-native invasive. Wong starts by making a soup of the red berries, then strains and dries it in her food dryer. She also uses the berries in a marmalade and pickles them.
Wong sends me on my way with a container of her za’atar and a tray of chestnuts. At home, I sprinkle the za’atar on my oatmeal, as she recommended. Indeed it turns a bowl of mush into a tart and tangy sensation.
Market Dinner, Brick Farm, Hopewell. Saturday, November 1, dinner prepared by Chef Mark Drabich with Tama Wong’s wild edibles is sold out, but visit www.brickfarmmarket.com/events to join the waiting list.
Where to Find Wong’s Wares: Wong’s sumac, za’atar and pawpaw ice cream (made by Bent Spoon) are available at Brick Farm Market. Her wild edibles are distributed to restaurants through Zone 7. Wild greens will be available in spring — contact email@example.com.
Resources for native, wild and invasive plants: D&R Greenway, www.drgreenway.org; Stonybrook Millstone Watershed Association, www.thewatershed.org; Bomman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, www.bhwp.org; New Jersey Audubon Society, www.njaudubon.org.
Resources for mushrooms: New Jersey Mycological Society, www.njmyco.org.
NOFA-NJ’s winter conference, January 25-26, 2015, will feature a talk about integrating wild foods and medicines into the farm, garden, or homestead. Nofa-nj.org
Where to Find Native Plants: Native plants including edibles — daylilies, arrowhead, May apple, bee balm, prickly pear, purslane, wild strawberry, violets, and wintergreen — can be found at D&R Greenway’s native plant nursery, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, and Toadshade Wildflower Farm in Frenchtown (www.toadshade.com).
“Foraged Flavor” by Tama Matsuoka Wong with Eddy Leroux includes illustrations and keys to identification of wild edibles that can be found in central New Jersey, a guide to sustainable foraging, information on creating a wild kitchen garden and 88 recipes. Her website, www.meadowsandmore.com, includes information on creating an edible meadow and recommended books and resources.
Caramelized Braised Endive with Juniper Berries
(From “Foraged Flavor”)
Harvest tips: Choose a few branches of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in fall or winter when they are laden with ripe gray-blue (not green) berries. Pluck berries, dry in a warm dry place indoors using a home dehydrator or in an oven set to its lowest temperature. Store in an airtight container. Grind in a spice or coffee grinder.
4 medium Belgian endives
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon ground dried Eastern Red Cedar juniper berries, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Remove outer leaves and cut away the tough bottom from each endive. Melt the butter in a small heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-low heat, add the endives, and sprinkle with the juniper and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, turning them gently after the color changes on one side, for about 25 minutes or until the outside edges turn a medium caramel-brown.
3. Cover the skillet and transfer to the oven for about 45 minutes. The endive should turn a deeper chocolate color but still be soft and melty. Sprinkle with a pinch of ground juniper before serving.
This is a nice accompaniment to game or Thanksgiving turkey.