Saturday, August 3, 2013

Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong

Tama Matsuoka Wong's Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer's Market found its way into my hands by happy chance at the library. Wong writes about supplying chef Eddy Leroux at a fancy restaurant in New York City with assorted wild edible plants in season. 88 recipes by Leroux showcase the best qualities of 71 different plants.

I started reading wildflower guides and books about using wild plants for food, medicine, paper and dyes when I was nine or ten years old. Over the years, I've found that some wild foods are too much trouble (cattails, fireweed shoots) but others are delicacies worth every effort (stinging nettles).

Behind my garage, daylilies, chicory, rocket
and mustards are visible. Raspberry canes
are hidden behind hollyhocks and
string beans are in there somewhere too.
Eating the plants that show up uninvited in my garden is my favourite approach to weeding. Also, by the time spring rolls around in Edmonton -- late April or even mid-May -- I'm desperate for fresh greens in my diet. Young dandelion leaves in my lawn are a treat when there's still snow on the ground in shady areas. Chickweed, mustards, daylilies, chicory and lambsquarters are just a few of the other wildlings that I welcome into my kitchen.

While I've already been making some of the things in the book -- dandelion flower jelly, candied rose petals (Leroux's recipe is for violet flowers), spruce tip tea, and rose petal jam -- there are recipes I found new and exciting.

I grow two kinds of mint but tend to use only peppermint (fresh or dried for tea), so I was eager to try Leroux's spearmint recipes. I adapted the Cucumber and Wild Spearmint recipe, substituting grated, roasted beets for the cucumber. It was so good, I've made it twice. Today I made Chocolate-dipped Wild Spearmint Leaves. What a treat!

The recipe for Tempura Fried Aralia Buds (made from the Japanese Angelica tree) at first made me think of beignets that I prepared once in France using Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus) blossoms. But then I read the description more closely and realized that it is the young leaf buds that are used, not flower buds. They are described as having a "light aftertaste of sap and aromatic pine." This sounds delicious, but aralia doesn't grow this far north, unfortunately.

Some plants that do grow in my yard but I haven't thought of eating include pineapple weed (Pineapple in Pineapple Weed Syrup), lamium (Deadnettle Veloute), and artemesia (Artemesia Rice Crisps). While absinthe is the first thing that comes to mind as a use for artemesia, and I'm not planning on experimenting with that, the recipe for rice crisps sounds intriguing. The herb is used to flavour sticky rice as it cooks, then the rice is spread thinly on a tray, dried, broken into chunks, then fried. I'd like to try it.

A field identification key (with colour photos) makes up the first section of the book. Wong writes "Believe it or not, human brains are actually hardwired to remember plants visually and to distinguish them better than phone numbers, computer instructions, or standardized-test multiple choice questions." Wong also stresses the importance of foraging sustainably. Plants are coded green (naturalized and invasive; safe to forage without limit), yellow (generalist native plants; harvest no more than 20% of what you find); and red (specialist and conservative native plants that should be only collected from your own garden).
Dipping fresh mint leaves into chocolate.
It's fiddly work with delicious results.

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