Lambsquarter, Lamb’s Quarter, Chenopodium – Delicious whatever you call it
Forager Bill meets Gardener Bill in this post about about lambsquarter, one of the all-time great greens. It tastes wonderful (like a cross between asparagus and spinach); it’s easy to prepare and cook; it’s good for you – the usual dark green “high in vitamins and minerals, low in calories” - and as a major bonus, it not only plants itself, it starts so early and grows so fast that you can harvest multiple crops and still have time to plant tomatoes, corn, squash, beans or whatever in the very same ground.
HALF-WILD GREENS, PART TWO – LAMBSQUARTER
Compared to cultivating ramps, growing lambsquarter in your garden is a snap. In fact, if you don’t know what it is you may already be trying to weed it out. It is considered by some to be one of the most widespread weeds in the world.
Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) is probably best thought of as a complex of related plants which intergrade and hybridize quite easily. I find a variety of forms growing in my garden, often changing as the season progresses. You can find one form or another of it growing throughout North America; C. berlandieri was once part of the group of crops grown by the Eastern Woodlands Native Americans.
In Mexico a subspecies (ssp. nuttalliae) and hybrids are still grown as commercial cultivars: ‘Huauzontle’ for the flowering heads, ‘Chia’ for the seeds, and ‘Quelite’ for the leafy greens. It is sometimes called Pigweed or Goosefoot, and Giant Goosefoot, or ‘Magenta Spreen’, (C. gigantium) is available from several specialty seed suppliers, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
All varieties of Chenopodium seem to be quite prolific, producing panicles that release thousands of tiny seeds, some of which germinate quickly while others persist in the soil for years. This is undoubtedly one reason why these plants are such successful weeds.
Far from being difficult to grow, they are often difficult to eradicate, particularly in soils which are frequently turned. It’s like the many-headed Hydra of Greek Mythology, every time you hoe down the weed, more come up as you expose more seed to sprout. You can see how lambsquarter is a problem when thought of as a weed. Think of it as a delicious green, however, and the problem becomes a blessing, a gift that keeps on giving.
Next to Broccoli Raab, Lambsquarter is my favorite green, but it does have two characteristics that might give you pause the first time you try it.
The first is a grayish, mealy powder found mainly on the underside of the young leaves. This will create an intriguing silvery sheen to the leaf when it is plunged into clear water. The grayish powder, parts of the leaf structure itself, will easily rinse off and rise to the top as a scum. Not to worry, it is harmless.
Equally harmless is the purplish red bloom which will come to dot some of the leaves.
The second aspect of lambsquarter that might cause concern is a flavor characteristic. Best described as a slightly astringent, bitter or mineral quality, it occasionally will leave in the mouth and on the tooth an oxalic acid sensation similar to that produced by rhubarb.
If you or your children do not like spinach, you will not like lambsquarter. But if your palate has progressed to a more mature level chances are that you will flip over it. Take Lois, for instance. She can’t ever get enough of it. She heads for the greens patch as soon as she gets to the Hudson Valley, and she continually scours the garden in Maine, laying claim to every plant she can find.
CULTIVATION OF LAMBSQUARTER
Nothing could be simpler. As I build my garden compost piles in the fall, into those beds where I want lambsquarter to grow next year, I incorporate a few mature plants along with the usual horse manure, garden remains, leaves and grass.
In late winter or early spring I turn the piles at my leisure, one every week or two. Before the last frost a thick carpet of two-leafed seedlings will appear, and with the first warm rains of May the tender young plants will be ready to be sheared off with a pair of scissors.
The first cutting is always the best, and the staggered turning of the planting beds, some double dug and turned twice, assures that a “first cutting” will always be available until the heat of summer.
True to its ‘weed’ status, lambsquarter will be found throughout the garden, although beds not treated as described will not be as prolific.
The heaviest harvest often comes just as the asparagus is allowed to go to fern. Large quantities can be cut, placed in storage bags and kept for weeks in the fridge. This green is so delicious and cooperative that it has been years since we have grown spinach.
One final gift of this plant should be mentioned. During the chaos of the early to mid season growth spurt it works very well as a trap plant for aphids.
At first, only a few plants will be affected. When you find one that has growing tips covered with these tiny insects, simply pluck the entire plant and you have captured pests that otherwise would have spread over the whole garden. (Bury infested plants in the compost; the aphids won’t survive.)
HOW TO COOK LAMBSQUARTER:
Again, simplicity itself: Rinse and pick through the greens, discarding any tough stems. (Stems get tougher as plants get older and weather grows hotter.)
I usually blanch the greens for a few minutes, drain and finish by a quick sauté in olive oil.
For a more robust dish, toast a handful of walnuts and a teaspoon of cumin seeds in the olive oil. As they are toasting, but before the oil gets a chance to smoke, add a clove or two of diced garlic, perhaps a few shallots or a quarter cup of coarsely chopped Vidalia onion, a handful of sun dried tomatoes, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.
Play with these as you wish. A scant teaspoon of Smoked Spanish or Hungarian Paprika will create a perfect and automatic balance among all of the other ingredients.
Add the steamed greens, toss once, and serve immediately with coarse sea salt and fresh crusty bread. You will need nothing else except a glass of red wine.
Or beer, if you make Leslie’s Lambs Quarter Quesadillas.