These days, everyone wants to eat the hip “new” nutritional foods: kale, chia, quinoa and many others that are found in the latest chef’s restaurant where all the beautiful people go.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a seed that has been used for centuries in Mexico and South America, and it’s a great food. The seeds and leaves have been used in countless recipes and the plant was highly revered.
But did you know that there is a close relative to quinoa that grows wild just about everywhere in Southern California? In fact, it grows pretty much everywhere in the world these days and is more often regarded as a weed to be pulled and discarded.
I’m speaking of lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album), a European native that is today found all over the world. Though this spinach relative is an extremely common cosmopolitan plant, it rarely gets the respect it deserves. In fact, it is typically regarded as an agricultural pest and an urban weed. Gardeners pull it up and poison it and throw it into the trash can. This is another example of our culture’s chosen ignorance because lamb’s quarter is possibly the most nutritious green plant you can eat.
We have this mistaken notion that anything really good must come from China or Tibet or a Brazilian rain forest. Since lamb’s quarter is in everyone’s backyard, we hardly notice it — unless we’re without money.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of lamb’s quarter leaf contains 4.2 grams of protein, 309 mg of calcium, 72 mg of phosphorus, 80 mg of vitamin C, and a remarkable 11,600 International Units of vitamin A. The small black seeds are also an excellent protein source, used just as you’d use the quinoa seeds sold in many markets.
Even if you’re not concerned about the vitamin and mineral content, you’ll find that lamb’s quarter is a delicious, hearty plant that can be used in many dishes.
Generally, you use lamb’s quarter in any way that you’d use spinach. Lamb’s quarter leaves can be picked and added to green salads. The flavor is similar to spinach. The leaves can also be steamed as you’d steam spinach, and then seasoned with butter or herbs. Most of your guests won’t detect that they’re not eating spinach.
Lamb’s quarter leaves can be added to soups, stews, omelets, bread batter and even quiche. The leaves can be steamed, and cheese grated over the top before serving. The tender stems can be steamed, and served as you’d serve asparagus or string beans.
Lamb’s quarter is a late spring and summer weed around here, and so I use all that I can during the season. I also dry a lot which I then can store and reconstitute later. I also like to freeze as much as I can, which I then add to soups and stews throughout the year when the plant has died back.
As lamb’s quarter goes to seed and dies back, you can easily collect the seeds. I generally rub my hand along the stem and collect the seeds into a large salad bowl. When all the seeds are dry, I rub them all between my hands, and blow off the chaff until I am left with only the black seed. These seeds are then added to bread batter, pancake and biscuit batter, and soups.
This is such a common urban plant worldwide that no homeless person should ever go hungry where lamb’s quarter is found. It grows all over Pasadena and nearby areas in parks, in back yards, in fields, in vacant lots, along railroad lines, and often in the wilderness areas along trails. When I harvest lamb’s quarter, I just pinch off the tips and never uproot the plant. This way it lives longer and I have an extended supply of the greens.
Lamb’s quarter is easily recognized by its roughly toothed leaves that are somewhat triangular in shape. The leaves are covered with a fine white mealiness which causes water to bead on the leaf surface. The older stems often have red stripes and red in the axils.
If you’re not sure of the identity of a wild plant you intend to eat, don’t eat it!
Take the time to send someone a picture of the plant, or take the plant to a specialist.
Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “Nuts and Berries of California” and other books on self-reliance. He has led foraging walks since 1974. He is also the manager at the Tuesday Highland Park Farmer’s Market. Questions can be sent to this paper, or he can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.