By Leda Meredith
I recently saw lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) for sale at the Park Slope Food Coop for $7.59 lb. Whoa, mama. I’m pretty sure the farm hadn’t actually planted this choice wild edible, but was just making the most of their weeding. More power to them, but I’m glad I forage mine for free!
By July, dandelion, dock, and many other wild edible greens have become too bitter to eat. Not lamb’s quarters. It keeps its delicious mild flavor and silky (when cooked) texture straight through the summer.
One of my foraging colleagues is trying to rebrand lamb’s quarters as “wild spinach” because that is closer to a description of its taste and texture and culinary usefulness. Okay, but it isn’t spinach, and I learned it first as lamb’s quarters, so I’m sticking with that.
This “weed” grows in every BK park, community garden, parking lot, tree pit – you name it. It appears each year once nighttime temperatures are reliably well above freezing. This year that happened early in Brooklyn. That fact plus the plentiful rain we’ve been getting has translated into a bonanza harvest year for lamb’s quarters…and we’re just getting started.
Lamb’s quarters is a nutritional superstar. Just one cup of the chopped leaves gives you 14071 IUs of vitamin A (281% of your daily requirement), 464 mgs of calcium (46%), and 66 mgs of vitamin C (111%).
Don’t pick just one cup though. Although lamb’s quarters is edible raw, is infinitely tastier once cooked (and I’m usually a fan of raw veggies, but not in this case). Like spinach, it shrinks down a lot as it wilts during cooking. So if you want to end up with a cup of cooked lamb’s quarters, you’ll need to start out with something like 10 cups of the raw leaves.
If that sounds discouraging, take heart: lamb’s quarters is easy to collect in quantity. Just pinch off the top several inches of each branch of the plant, or pinch out the new growth that shows up at the leaf axils. If the stems are tender enough to pinch off easily, then plan on eating them, too – no need to drive yourself crazy pinching off a leaf at a time.
About the name: I’ve heard two versions. One is that the leaves look sort of like a lamb’s hind quarter, in other words butt and thigh. Another is that they look like a lamb’s head if you were looking down from above, with the narrow end being the nose and the wide end being the ears. Whoever came up with those associations had way too much spare time.
How to Identify Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)
Lamb’s quarters has leaves that are broader at the base than the tip, sort of like a rough triangle. The leaf margins are toothed, but those teeth aren’t sharp. The first set of true leaves is opposite (lined up with each other and joining the stem at the same height), but all subsequent leaves are alternate (joining the stem at different heights rather than in pairs).
Sometimes lamb’s quarters stems and leaves show some pinkish coloration. In fact, there is a very cute cultivar with brilliant magenta coloring (they’re growing that one at Brooklyn Botanic Garden).
The youngest, smallest leaves especially, but all of the leaves to some extent, will be covered with a whitish, mealy coating that rubs off when you swipe a finger across a leaf. This is your clincher for the ID.
Later in the year lamb’s quarters will produce small black seeds that are edible and good for you, but a pain to collect.
Note: there is another plant, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), that has a similar leaf shape and growth habit. Its crushed leaves smell like turpentine, whereas crushed lamb’s quarters leaves have no noticeable smell.
What to do with Lamb’s Quarters
Lamb’s quarters are good in anything cooked spinach is good in. Actually,lamb’s quarters is a better-tasting vegetable, in my opinion. So yes to omelets and fritatas, ravioli filling, dip, lasagna, etc. But before you get all fancy with it, here is a simple, so good way to enjoy this wild ingredient:
Lamb’s Quarters with Butter and Nutmeg
Serves 2 as a side dish
2 1/2 quarts raw lamb’s quarters leaves and tender stems
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons butter
Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Wash and coarsely chop the lamb’s quarters. Place the greens in a large skillet or pot. Add the water, butter, and nutmeg.
2. Cook over medium heat, stirring almost constantly, until the lamb’s quarters is completely wilted. If there is still a lot of liquid in with the greens, raise the heat briefly and boil off most of the liquid.
3. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm, or refrigerate and use later in the week as a quick add to eggs, greens ‘n’ beans, etc.
Upcoming Foraging Tours
(I promise we’ll find lamb’s quarters – it’s everywhere in BK once you know what you’re looking for!)