Some call it a weed, while others passionately defend its use in the kitchen. I am fairly certain that even if you are not familiar with lamb's quarters' as a culinary delight, you've seen the plant growing wild. Once you know what to look for, you'll discover that it is literally everywhere, from parks to gardens to the side of the road. In Brooklyn, we have lamb's quarters popping up in just about every bed in our community garden, in Prospect Park and in the tree pits that line our streets. You can even see the plant struggling to make it up through cracks in the sidewalk - it's one hearty (and delicious) bugger!
A Brief History
A green, weedy vegetable that has a propensity to grow on newly cultivated land, trash and manure heaps and especially in nitrogen-rich soil, lamb's quarters were once thought to be native to Europe and Asia. However, botanists at Penn State note that there is archaeological evidence that Native American Blackfoot tribes used the seeds of the plant prior to European contact, so it's not entirely clear when and how lamb's quarters spread to North America. The plant has also been found in Stone Age (Neolithic) European trash heaps. Regardless of its original origins, the plant has now dispersed across the globe, and can now be found in temperate areas across most of the world.
- Lamb's quarters go by lots of different names, including "white goosefoot," "pigweed," "dungweed," "baconweed" and "wild spinach." One of its names, "fat hen," comes from its supposed ability (as a feed) to fatten chickens.
- According to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, the name "lamb's quarters" first appears in American print in 1804, derived from the name of an ancient English festival called "Lammas quarter," the first harvest festival of the year, held in August.
- High-protein lamb's quarters seeds can be used to make flour and bread. Seeds of the plant have even been found in the stomach contents of the Danish bog bodies.
- And speaking of seeds: just one lamb's quarters plant can produce between 75,000 and 100,000 seeds.
Lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album), is related to lots of other yummy things, including close-cousin quinoa, along with beets, spinach, orach and epazote. There are cultivated varietals of the plant, but it is also easily foraged, as it grows all across North America (and indeed, is considered an invasive weed in some areas). It is commonly cultivated in Northern India, used for both its leaves and seeds.
Lamb's quarters are available from early summer through fall's first frost. We should note that lamb's quarters will be virtually impossible to find from your local grocery store - seek it out at your local farmer's market, or forage for it yourself.
Lamb's quarters grown (or foraged) for food is an esoteric veggie that doesn't make much of an environmental impact. But - and this is a big "but" - it is considered an invasive weed in industrial agricultural operations, made more difficult to eradicate because it prefers nitrogen-rich soils.
Because of this, there is a bit of a catch-22 in industrial agricultural operations when it comes to lamb's quarters: first, nitrogen is added to soil as a fertilizer, increasing the likelihood that nitrogen-loving lamb's quarters will grow. Herbicides like glycophate (Monsanto's Roundup) are then used to control the plant. (We talked about glocophate's environmental impact in last week's RFRN installment on purslane). Genetically modified (GM) glycophate-resistant soy and corn have been developed, so that more of the herbicide can be used to control "weeds" like lamb's quarters (and, admittedly, other weeds that aren't as delicious as lamb's quarters). But here's the deal: lamb's quarters and other weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glycophate, producing what has been dubbed "superweeds" that are impossible to control aside from going back to more traditional methods of hand-pulling and plowing. (Here's a good article from the New York Times that explains the "superweed" phenomenon in more detail, if you want to learn more.)
Characteristics and What to Look For
Lamb's quarters plants can get quite large - as tall as seven feet - and generally have deep-green leaves shaped (supposedly) like a goose's foot. (There are also varietals that have a bit of pink or red on the young leaves and stems.) Younger leaves have a white, powdery substance on the underside that is perfectly normal. Look for younger leaves if you want to eat the plant raw, as older leaves can get a bit tough. At the farmers' market, seek out lamb's quarters that are perky (they wilt easily), with no drying or yellow leaves. When foraging, as always, the golden rule is to first be completely sure that what you are picking is edible, because there are several non-edible lamb's quarters look-alikes. Here's Wildman Steve Brill's post on how to identify the plant, and here's a video that demonstrates foraging for the veggie. It is also worth noting that you must be careful where you forage, to ensure that your lamb's quarters have not been sprayed with herbicides; many large municipal parks employ - you guessed it - Roundup - to control "weeds" like lamb's quarters. If you're unsure, it's best to pass.
Like other so-called "weeds" (see our recent article on purslane), lamb's quarters is incredibly nutritious. It is high in fiber, protein and is loaded with both Vitamins A and C. The plant is also high in manganese, calcium, copper and has a bit of iron, and is high in both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Like spinach and other greens, it does contain quite a bit of oxalic acid, which can be both a stomach irritant and can impede the absorption of calcium. Cooking lamb's quarters eliminates most oxalic acid - but go easy if you choose to eat it raw. And like quinoa, the seeds and leaves contain saponin, which can also be a stomach irritant. Saponin can be ameliorated by rinsing the seeds well, and by cooking the leaves.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Lamb's quarters leaves can be eaten both raw and cooked (but see our note in "Nutrition," above, about oxalic acid and saponins in the raw plant). Give the leaves a good rinse before eating to get rid of the (normal) white, powdery bloom on them. If cooking, the veggie fares better when it is quickly sautéed or steamed; its delicate leaves tend to disintegrate if cooked for a long period of time. Like spinach, it pares well with alliums (think onions and garlic), with cream (as in this cream of lamb's quarters soup) with cheese (especially hard cheeses like Parmesan) and with citrus (think lemon and orange). Here is a nice recipe roundup of ideas on how to cook lamb's quarters, including a green smoothie made with the veggie, lamb's quarters salad and lamb's quarters with beans.
Lamb's quarters is common in Indian cuisine (especially North Indian dishes) and is used much like other greens. Its Hindi name is bathua. Here's a recipe for lamb's quarters raita and a lamb's quarter daal recipe. The green is also eaten in Korea and China, wild harvested as one of the "mountain vegetables" so prized in Korean cuisine and a popular "wild green" in China. Here's a yummy looking recipe for a Korean lamb's quarters side dish with chiles and sesame, and a similar Chinese dish using chiles, soy sauce and black vinegar.
Lamb's quarters don't keep for very long; wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in a zip-top bag in the fridge, they'll keep for no more than a couple of days.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Lamb's quarters can be frozen - here's a post on how to do it. You can also make this lamb's quarters kimchi or this lamb's quarters pesto, both of which will keep in the fridge far longer than the fresh veggie.
Sautéed Lamb's Quarters with Anchovies, Garlic, Breadcrumbs and Lemon
Although lamb's quarters can be eaten both raw and cooked, I prefer it cooked, but just briefly. (To me, it is rather bland raw.) Serve sautéed lamb's quarters alongside anything you'd serve spinach with, especially poultry and fish. This recipe is also great as a stuffing for pork (think pork chops or pork tenderloin) and rabbit, or paired with mashed potatoes. Omit the anchovies to make this a vegan dish.
Note: if you're using salt-packed anchovies, rinse the anchovy fillets in several changes of water and pat dry. Oil-packed anchovies can be used right out of the jar.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
1⁄3 cup dry breadcrumbs
2 anchovy fillets (see note above), finely chopped
5 cups lamb's quarters leaves, washed and dried
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon lemon zest (I like to use a microplane grater for this)
Lemon juice, to taste
- In a large, heavy sauté pan, add the olive oil and garlic. Turn the heat to medium-high and sauté until the garlic is just barely fragrant, about a minute. Add the chopped anchovies and stir for 1 minute. Add the breadcrumbs and continue to cook and stir until the breadcrumbs smell toasty and are golden-brown, about 2 minutes more.
- Add the lamb's quarters, a pinch of salt (use less salt if you're using salted anchovies, see note above) and a grinding of black pepper. Sauté, stirring gently, for another 2-3 minutes, or until the lamb's quarters are just barely wilted.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon zest and a few drops of lemon juice. Taste and add more salt, if necessary. Serve warm.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in June 2014.