There may be no greater disconnect in the food world today than the one between cooks – amateur and professional ones – and the wild ingredients growing all around us.Though foraging has been a culinary buzzword for the last few years, the practice typically turns up the same few tastes at restaurants, most of them procured from faraway purveyors: wild leeks (they’re overrated, and threatened by overharvesting in many parts of North America), morel mushrooms (delicious), spruce tips (delicious in a Pine-Sol way) and fiddleheads (they taste mildly like mouthwash).
Meanwhile, we’re literally trampling over lesser-known edibles on our way in to work each morning.
Tama Matsuoka Wong, a Wall Street lawyer, began to take notice about a decade ago: violet-flowered anise hyssop that grew in her garden and tasted like licorice, and the common dandelion flowers that are considered nuisances here but are made into floral, honey-tinged jellies in France and drizzled over foie gras.
In 2009, at the urging of friends, she took some anise hyssop into Daniel, the chef Daniel Boulud’s flagship New York restaurant.
Eddy Leroux, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, loved them and asked for more.
Ms. Matsuoka Wong began lugging garbage bags filled with foraged herbs and flowers on the subway to drop off at the restaurant before work many mornings.
Before long she had quit her day job.
She had taken up as forager.
Ms. Matsuoka Wong’s new book, called Foraged Flavor: finding fabulous ingredients in your backyard or farmer’s market, is a guide to identifying, picking and cooking 72 of her favourite wild foods, with recipes by Mr. Leroux.
With almost every turn of a page, there’s a flash of recognition. “I didn’t know you could eat that!” you find yourself saying. Even better, the pair doesn’t take “could” as their standard for edibility. Foraged Flavor is no survivalist manual; they include only what tastes good, and Mr. Leroux tells exactly how to prepare it.
The chef adds lemony sheep sorrel (you’ve got it in your neighbourhood) to mascarpone-kissed risotto, and hairy bitter cress (its more common name, “cardamine” is perhaps a better menu sell) to Chinese pork rib soup. He turns sumac berries – they’re growing by the bushel behind my house – into a tart, fruity beverage similar to lemonade. Asian honeysuckle flowers, from an all-too-common invasive vine, are gorgeous as an icy granita with sake drizzled over.
What’s best about the book is how thoroughly – and deliciously – it dismantles the artificial boundaries between what’s considered food and what’s just everyday flora.
As for fiddleheads and leeks, Ms. Matsuoka Wong is refreshingly dismissive. There’s better stuff out there, she writes. She’s happy to say where to look.
Take a second look
Three wild foods you’ve walked past this week and what to do with them:
A native bush that grows across North America. Staghorn sumac is found in the east, smooth sumac elsewhere. The bright red berries, with their intense, woody, lemony scent, are a staple of French and Middle Eastern cooking. They make superb jelly that can be used in place of cranberry sauce. Mr. Leroux also grinds them and pairs the spice with figs and almond flour in a spectacular puff pastry tart.
This is one of the best smelling summer flowers; the vines are highly invasive and will choke out small trees and shrubs. So get even – the Chinese have made tea from the dried leaves for millennia, while Mr. Leroux sautees the leaves as a gently bitter green. Ms. Matsuoka Wong, meantime, says the best way to eat the flowers is fresh off the vine: bite one end and suck out the summery nectar.
Queen Anne’s Lace
The French call this plug-common roadside weed la carotte sauvage; the seeds inside the flower clusters smell and taste intensely of carrots. (You can also eat the roots, but there’s a high risk of misidentifying them with toxic plants. Ms. Matsuoka Wong sticks to the seeds). Mr. Leroux candies the seeds before spooning them on top of dark chocolate mousse.