Become A Backyard Gourmet This Summer

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by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

New Jersey native Tama Matsuoka has lived in some of the world’s most urban environments, including Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York City. When she returned to this state we’re in, she developed a self-described obsession with wild plants.

“I go out in my backyard,” Tama explains, “and see food all around! I bring it in and pack it up and bring it to a restaurant in New York City and they make it into great food!”


The technical term for Tama’s obsession is foraging, collecting wild plants for food or medicine. Plants have always been a part of our diet, but most of us aren’t aware of the edible plants all around us. Foraging is, Tama reminds us, “how our ancestors did things.” She enjoys learning the historic uses of wild plants, whether they’re native to New Jersey or not.

“Living in this part of the country, it’s really easy to find something you thought was a weed and it could actually be a high-quality culinary ingredient,” Tama explains. “The taste is amazing and they’re very healthy.”

If you’re familiar with dandelion wine, for example, it won’t surprise you that dandelion leaves are edible. Try early spring or late fall greens in your salad. Even the roots can be chopped and stir-fried!

In late summer, you might find purslane near your home. With a crunchy texture and mild flavor, purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. “Clip off the flexible top two inches or so,” Tama advises. “Don’t try to eat the thick red stems.” She sells wild purslane to gourmet restaurants in New York City, where it used on salads and fish.

Purslane is an interesting example of how Tama’s foraging intersects with her commitment to New Jersey’s land and plants. In 2007, she earned the New Jersey Forest Stewardship Award from the New Jersey Forest Service for her efforts to educate home gardeners about the importance of native plants.

“Even though purslane is cultivated around the world, it’s considered a weed in America.” Tama explains. “It’s not a native species, so it’s good to pick. For foraging to be sustainable, you have to be careful not to destroy something rare or beneficial. You need to know not only what’s edible, but how to harvest it safely and what parts are good to eat when. And the differences are really plant by plant.”

That’s why Tama – who’s now writing a “foraged foods” cookbook – recommends using a field guide to identify edible plants. Her website – – contains several examples under the “Recommended Products” tab. The 1962 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, is a wonderful place to start learning about adding wild plants to your menu.

Foraging is a great summer activity and a fun way to expand your palate. Check out your backyard; you may be surprised at what you can eat! Just remember to do your homework and be absolutely sure of what you are foraging.

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at or contact me at

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