By Mike Weilbacher
Visit almost any open space in Roxborough or Manayunk, and you’ll find a surprising cornucopia of wonderful taste sensations: dandelions and daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace and curly dock. That’s right, these are all weeds that simply taste great, and are free for the taking.
Wild plant forager Tama Matsuoka Wong has written a gorgeous cookbook, Foraged Flavor, featuring 88 recipes for the plants named above, and more. Recipes like chocolate-dipped wild spearmint leaves. Sumac and fig tart. Chilled mango soup with sweet spruce tips. Wild mustard greens and chorizo wild rice. Sound yummy? You bet.
Tama, a New Jersey resident and old friend of the Schuylkill Center, will take center stage in our next Thursday Night Live! series, set for July 9 at 7:00 p.m. The evening is free and takes place on Zoom; you can register at the Schuylkill Center’s website, www.schuylkillcenter.org.
And foraging is catching on big these days. Many high-end restaurants offer foraged food sensations on their menu, and Tama supplies foraged plants to many, like Daniel in New York City, the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, co-wrote the book with Tama. I walked into Whole Foods recently, and cracked up when I saw dandelion leaves on sale for a surprising high price. Dandelions? For sale? Really?
But dandelions are edible in so many ways, and were actually brought to the New World from European settlers wishing to bring greens with them. You can find green dandelion leaves deep into December, and find them again as early as February. Rich in vitamins, these greens saved many winter-starved colonial settlers. In fact, its long scientific name translates roughly as “the official cure for everything.” Those settlers planted it outside the kitchen door, where the plant of course escaped, and is now the bane of most suburban lawn owners and the featured pest in too many lawn chemical commercials.
Not only are its leaves edible. The sauteed buds are really tasty, the taproot can be roasted for coffee, and its flowers have been turned into wine. Tama of course kicks it up a notch or two: she creates a dandelion flower tempura with savory dipping sauce. Whoa.
What sets Tama’s book and philosophy apart from so many other similar books is that the previous ones would exhort you to boil the tough weedy leaves of many plants with like three changes of water, turning them into mush. Or fry them with bacon and butter-- where everything tastes good, even cardboard.
Tama’s search is for wild plants that are not just edible, but taste great. In her book, she recalls hauling garbage bags filled with stinging nettles-- stinging nettles! The bane of so many hikers as when you rub up against it wearing shorts, your legs start burning right away!-- onto a NYC subway from her Jersey home, toting them to Restaurant Daniel where “Eddy immediately pounded on the nettles, turning them into a foam to partner with a hazelnut-encrusted scallop dish.”
Tama even eats devil’s walking stick, one of the most hated plants at the Schuylkill Center (we don't hate many plants, not even poison ivy, but devil’s walking stick is hard on us). Not native to the America’s, this invasive fast-growing shrub sprouts long skinny trunks loaded with thorns, lending the plant its name. Heck, even its giant leaves are covered in thorns-- if Klingons had vegetables, this would be them. But it crowds out native plants, and grows like a monoculture of one plant, which Tama notes are “clonal stands.”
In its native Japan, where it is better known as the angelica tree (Aralia elata), its buds are treasured as a delicacy called tara no me. So Tama forages for the buds, picking them at the exact right time of year, turning them into such treasures as tempura-fried Aralia buds and just-poached Aralia with mustard vinaigrette.
Intrigued? We’d love to introduce you to the charismatic Tama, one of the most dynamic people you’ll ever meet-- just spending an hour with her is upbeat balm for the pandemic soul. Go to our website, look for the link, and join us on Thursday evening. When our gift shop reopens, which we pray is soon, Foraged Flavor is for sale; of course, you can purchase it online.
After the event, you’ll never buy dandelions at Whole Foods again. You’ll forage for them along Germany Hill and the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Reserve Park. And you’ll stop spraying your weeds-- you’ll harvest them instead.
The Schuylkill Center’s Thursday Night Live! series includes additional events into the summer. Coming topics include the surprising lives of moths, climate change in Philadelphia, and the Green New Deal. Love to have you join us.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at email@example.com.