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Finding Flavor in the Weeds

Randy Harris for The New York Times Dead nettle. Tama Matsuoka Wong has co-written a cookbook on foraged ingredients, inspired by some of the underappreciated plants on her New Jersey property. More Photos » 
Source: http://www.nytimes.com

Finding Flavor in the Weeds  

Published: June 6, 2012
I know I’m not the only one who had chickweed growing like a deeply rooted carpet all over my vegetable garden this spring. And have you ever seen such huge leaves of dock this early in the season?

They're Tough But You Knew
It’s a banner year for chickweed, said Lewis H. Ziska, a plant physiologist in the Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory for the Department of Agriculture, in Beltsville, Md.
And for Canada thistle, another scourge, which grew two to three times its normal size in plexiglass chambers with CO2 levels elevated to 700 parts per million. Even when sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate), the plants survived, due to their extra-vigorous roots.

“Weeds are the ultimate beneficiaries of rapid change in the environment,” said Mr. Ziska, the co-author of “Weed Biology and Climate Change,” with Jeffrey S. Dukes. “And this is an environment on steroids.” Weeds can grow quickly and flower early, producing vast numbers of genetically diverse seed. So if conditions are dry, for example, seeds with drought tolerance germinate; if conditions are wet, other seeds flourish instead. A recent study by Steven J. Franks and other scientists showed that Brassica rapa, or field mustard, was able to develop drought tolerance within three generations. Mr. Ziska and others have also studied wild and cultivated rice under higher temperatures and elevated CO2. The wild rice grew taller and synchronized its flowering time with the cultivated rice, which had been genetically modified for herbicide resistance. The wild plants also had more flowers, pollen and seeds. The upshot was a rice field full of hybrid herbicide-resistant weeds, which could also sprout in surrounding areas. The qualities that make weeds bothersome could hold the key to crops that could thrive in the extreme conditions of climate change. “The ability of weeds to produce large numbers of genetically diverse seed may make them a good means to find — through forced selection — seed that may be drought- or temperature-tolerant, or more responsive to additional CO,” Mr. Ziska said.

Scores of weeds are thriving in Eastern gardens this year, thanks to the unusually warm winter and a roller coaster spring that has been hot one week, chilly the next, too dry then gloriously rainy. And as CO2 levels rise, some weeds are growing faster and bigger. A stand of Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) has taken root in the compost pile. Its jointed hollow stems are reminiscent of bamboo, but its tough oval leaves don’t have that plant’s feathery grace.

The stinging nettles — which I actually planted from a five-inch clump dug from a friend’s garden, because this ancient herb is full of nutrients — have grown into a five-foot-wide monster that flowered when I turned my back. It’s now bristling with hairy stingers that become harmless when cooked, but you don’t want to go near this plant without long sleeves and gloves. And once it blooms, in long, dripping tassels of greenish florets that turn to thousands of seeds, the leaves will develop cystoliths, or deposits of calcium carbonate, that can irritate the urinary tract.

“But you can mow it down and the leaves will come back,” Tama Matsuoka Wong told me recently, standing in the middle of her own weed-filled garden in North Flemington, N.J. Ms. Wong, a financial services lawyer who somehow manages to look elegant in muddy rubber boots, explained how she just snaps the tender young leaves off the top of the plants (wearing gloves, of course) and tosses them into boiling water. She takes them out after a few minutes, when they have wilted but are still bright green.

"Nettles have a deep herbal kind of celery-mint flavor," she said. "We like them on pizza or in risotto."

Ms. Wong, 54, has given up fighting her weeds. Instead, she eats most of them. Her new book, “Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market,” co-written with Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at Daniel, in Manhattan, isn’t just a collection of gourmet recipes for weeds and other unappreciated plants. Published by Clarkson Potter, it goes on sale this month, just in time to guide gardeners interested in taking another look at all those weeds crowding out their beet and carrot seedlings. Last week, as I weeded my potatoes, I actually found myself wishing for more dock so that I could harvest enough tender leaves to chop up for pasta. Dock is packed with vitamins and minerals, but only a starving person would think of eating the leathery leaves. Unless they had just visited Ms. Wong. She instructed me to take only the youngest leaves in the center of the plant. Cooked, it tastes a bit like kale, she said. When I got back home, I started picking every little dock leaf I could find, to make a pasta dish she had raved about.

My attitude about chickweed had changed, too. Instead of digging it up and trundling it off to the compost pile, I was shearing off the tender tops for an appetizer. "That grassy taste needs the kick of Gorgonzola,” Ms. Wong had told me.

If you can see a weed as food, everything changes.

“In Japan, chickweed is celebrated as hakobe, one of the seven wild herbs of spring,” said Ms. Wong, who is so enamored of weeds she hasn’t planted her vegetable garden this year. “I don’t even go to the farmers’ market anymore, because these taste so much better,” she said. “The wild flavors grow on you.” TRAINED at Harvard Law School, Ms. Wong still consults for clients on Wall Street, but her passion is foraging for Daniel, where Mr. Leroux experiments with her weeds in dishes that suit his palate. “It’s a little relaxation from the trading floor, pure creativity,” she said. “Here are these plants people are spraying and stomping on and throwing out, and Eddy has such respect for them."

“Foraged Flavor” is not a latter-day “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” or an imitation of one of those eating-from-the-wild books by “Wildman” Steve Brill, the herbalist Swamp Fox of the New York park system. “I didn’t want to eat just survival foods,” Ms. Wong said. “Those recipes aren’t exciting to me.” Instead, “Foraged Flavor” matches the distinctive, variously nutty, tart, sour, hot, minty tastes of these wild herbs — for a weed, after all, is just a plant we don’t like — with their soul mates (ginger or mustard or pine nuts). And Mr. Leroux, a French chef, doesn’t stint on the bacon and cream. I loved a salad Ms. Wong had made with creeping Jenny: the crunchy stems were delicious with a bit of tomato and mozzarella. And spruce tips, of all things — she clips the velvety new growth from her trees — lent a sprightly taste to mango and tapioca. Ms. Wong’s alliance with Mr. Leroux began by chance, three years ago, when friends suggested she bring some anise hyssop to dinner at Daniel to show to the chefs.That night, they tasted anise hyssop with shrimp and melon, and in a citrus sorbet. “Then Eddy said: ‘What else do you have? Bring me everything,’ ” Ms. Wong said. Gathering weeds here, in a garden surrounded by lush meadows and forest, is a kind of return for Ms. Wong, who grew up in Basking Ridge, N.J., not far from Princeton, where her father, Shiro Matsuoka, a native of Kyoto, was an engineer for Bell Laboratories. Her mother, who was Chinese, grew vegetables and battled groundhogs in the yard. Over the years, Ms. Wong has turned the septic field west of her porch into a meadow full of switch grass, bee balm, milkweed, brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) and other wildflowers and edible weeds. She pointed out henbit, or dead nettle (Lamium amplexicaule), the fuzzy leaves with the pink flowers that can take over bare yard or garden bed. “Eddy uses it in a soup,” she said, “and also inside wild herb ravioli.” The young leaves of bee balm (Monarda didyma, which has a red flower) have a lemony taste that Mr. Leroux mixes with crab meat and jalapeño peppers in spring rolls. He matches the clovelike flavors of lavender bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) with strawberries and mascarpone. And oxalis, or wild sorrel, has an acidity that brightens seafood. A wet meadow south of the house, bordered by sumac and elderberry, is home to joe-pye weed, ironweed, swamp milkweed, rose mallow and many other plants that like wet feet. And an old farm pond, fed by a stream and woodland marsh, is full of swamp violets and spicebush. These varied ecosystems provide Ms. Wong with a diversity of edible plants, as well as a habitat for thousands of insects and animals. In 2007, the New Jersey Forest Service named her Steward of the Year, and she continues to work with local field botanists and the New Jersey Audubon Society to restore meadows and marshlands. In 2009, she set up her own company, Meadows and More, to help people turn their lawns and yards into more natural landscapes. The site has a foraging calendar that includes color images of various plants, as well as their tastes, nutritional value and preparation. And if you have a question about some strange weed or plant growing in your garden, you can post a picture of it on the Web site’s “What is this Plant?” forum, managed by Karl Anderson, a New Jersey field botanist. All this comes more than 20 years after Ms. Wong met her husband, Wil, in Hong Kong, where she was working for Merrill Lynch. He had trained as an architect at Princeton, so it wasn’t a far stretch to buy this 1850s farmhouse on 28 acres of abandoned pasture 18 years ago, as the two were often in New Jersey visiting Ms. Wong’s aging parents. While they were still living abroad, Mr. Wong began to transform a shack on the property into a studio and to enlarge the old farmhouse. The master bedroom now opens onto a second-story porch overlooking the meadow, and the open-air porch below anchors the house to the surrounding meadow, marsh and woodland. In 2002, the Wongs and their three daughters finally left Hong Kong for rural New Jersey. “I was at a certain age, where I’d lived in cities — Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong — my entire professional life,” Ms. Wong said. “There are things you start to value more, like fresh air and water.” Though she tried her hand at double-digging and staking tomatoes, she was more intrigued by what was growing around her without the help of any human hand. She collected field guides and took classes at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, in New Hope, Pa. She learned which plants were native, like the sumac and elderberry, and which were rare, like trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit. “People cut down sumac and elderflower, because they think they are weeds,” she said. “Or they forage without distinguishing the rare plants, pulling out trillium and eating trout lilies.” Personally, I wouldn’t think of eating a trout lily. But I was eager to make a dinner out of chickweed and dock. “It still tastes like grass, with a lot of cream,” said Rock, my partner, as we ate our chickweed crostini. Cooking had tamed the dock, which was delicious in all that cream and bacon, but neither of us could discern the flavor of kale. It just tasted like a green vehicle for those very ingredients my doctor tells me not to eat. Still, we were intrigued by the concept. “It would be fun to invite people over and feed them weeds,” Rock said. The wild spearmint dipped in chocolate and dusted with cocoa was brilliant. We’re going to try knotweed next. Ms. Wong says it tastes like rhubarb, only better.



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