One of the wonderful things about the cooler weather of fall is that it brings back all the lovely spring “weeds” to the garden. That first green that comes in early spring is full of nutrients and minerals, and in olden times was valued as a “spring tonic” to clear out all that heavy food stuff that had been eaten all winter and get a body ready for the outdoor work ahead.
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album or Chenopodium berlandieri), also referred to as goosefoot or pigweed, is part of the Amaranthaceae, or amaranth family, which of course also includes the common grain: amaranth, and swiss chard and spinach…which brings me back to why I love lamb’s quarters.
Lamb’s quarters grow wild and just about everywhere in the world. They are considered an annoying, fast growing, easily spread weed to gardeners and landscapers alike, but they have been used as a food source all over the world for centuries…and they’re delicious!
They taste a lot like spinach. In fact, I’ve fed them to people who swore that’s what they were eating. The leaves can be stripped from the main stem (which tends to get tough and stringy as the plant grows) and prepared in any way that you would use spinach…I’ve put them fresh in salads, added them to turkey and deer burgers or meat loaf for some extra moisture and flavor, cooked them as greens, made them into omelets, added them to soups…literally any way you would normally use spinach, lamb’s quarters work just the same, and you’d never know the difference.
Tender young fall lamb’s quarters growing next to (also delicious) dandelion
Besides being prolific and free (in the spring I was literally picking them daily and ended up with several cooked batches of greens in my freezer), they need very little, if any, care. I’ve never attempted to grow spinach, but I know all my other greens have been victim to caterpillars, slugs, and beetle pests. Additionally, I had to water them of course. But lamb’s quarters not only set themselves up for success, growing in the soil condition and moisture level that suits them best (remember, they are a “weed”), bugs and pests don’t seem to bother them at all (preferring, I imagine, to snack on the “exotic” planted crops of kale, cabbage, and squash I provide each year!). Occasionally, I’ll find a small spider who has decided to make a home in the leaves, but for the most part, I can simply pick-and-prepare, no washing or bug-picking needed.
Before the weather gets too hot in the spring (they don’t like the heat), and now, before the weather gets too cold (they leave again when the frosts come), I break or cut off a stem just above the bottom set of leaves, leaving the roots in the ground. They grow back rapidly from that set of leaves for future picking from the same plant. I’ll then sit with my basket and pull off the tender tops and all the leaves below, skipping over anything that looks less than perfect (spots, discoloration, aforementioned spiders…). If there is any visible dirt, I’ll run them under some water to knock it off. The leaves don’t really get wet…there is a fine white powder on the underside of the leaves which seems to repel the water. Once cooked, I don’t notice the powder, and fresh in salads, it has a slight feel to it if there are a lot of, but no real taste.
One word of caution: as part of the amaranthacae family, lamb’s quarters also have a higher level of oxalic acid (like spinach and swiss chard do). There is some debate as to whether cooking gets rid of the oxalates or not, so use an appropriate amount of restraint if you are sensitive or avoiding them or are prone to kidney stones.
So before the weather turns too cold, see if you have some of this delicious wild vegetable growing near you and have a taste. It’s free, it’s delicious, it’s nutritious, it’s sustainable, it’s easy. And you may find it’s fun too!
When foraging wild foods, always use appropriate caution and common sense:
- make sure you know what you are picking
- check for critters, both around you and in/on your forage
- only forage where you know it’s safe (contaminants, chemicals, etc.)
- never take more than you need; leave some of nature’s food for nature
- leave some to grow for another day