Quick. What are the healthiest greens growing in your garden? Lettuce? Spinach? Kale? These crops, and others like them, are planted, cultivated and harvested in many gardens around the country. We pay money for their seeds. We often run water to help them grow. And then after a few weeks, our garden greens are ready to be harvested.
There is a possibility, though, that you may be removing a plant from your garden that rivals even kale in its nutritional value. This common garden green has earned many names over the centuries, but is commonly known as lamb’s quarters.
Lamb’s quarters is a green with a rich history. The Romans and people in the Medieval Ages readily consumed it. Entire towns actually acquired their names due to the abundance of the plant.
The nutritional benefits of lamb’s quarters weren’t a secret only to Europeans. In fact, people in the New World also were keen of this healthy wild food. Native people across the country consumed the greens and also harvested the seeds and ground them for flour. Even in the more modern world, people have looked to lamb’s quarter to sustain them.
In her book “Wild Seasons,” author Kay Young tells a story about how people during the Great Depression utilized this green. Her story comes from a retired meter reader who spent his days traveling around Kansas City in the 1930s. During this difficult time, the meter reader claims to have regularly seen bathtubs full of lamb’s quarters being washed and prepared for canning. It also was one of the few edible greens growing in abandoned city lots.
At a recent family gathering, my wife’s grandmother — now in her early 80s — told of commonly eating lamb’s quarters as a child. Although she was surprised to learn how nutritious it is, she wasn’t surprised at all to learn how people during the Great Depression ate it.
If you have a garden, there is a good chance you have some lamb’s quarters popping up. There are many varieties of the plant, also known as Chenopodium, but the varieties generally consumed have some similarities.
First, the leaf structure of the plant resembles the shape of a goose foot. (Because of this, it’s commonly called goose food.) Another identifying feature is a purplish coloration on the nodes of mature plants. When you are examining it near the stem, you will notice a series of ridges that run vertically down the stem. Perhaps the most distinguishable feature, though, is a white powder coating the plant. This white powder is hydrophobic and repels water. If the “weed” you are about to pull from your garden has these characteristics, it may in fact be the ultra-nutritious wild food.
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If you have located some lamb’s quarters and want to enjoy it, you can prepare it several ways. One way is to eat young leaves raw. While the plant can be eaten raw, it does contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause a number of problems if eaten in high volume. Fortunately, many recipes call for the leaves to be boiled. Blanching your leaves in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes removes most of the acid. It may be wise to limit your consumption early on in your foraging and to blanch the leaves, too.
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One tasty recipe comes from Kay Young’s book. It was contributed by a Nebraskan who recalled the dish from her childhood. First, gather a few cupfulls of lamb’s quarters leaves. Three cups seems to be a good amount for a single person. Next, drop the washed leaves in a pot of boiling water for two minutes. This not only removes much of the oxalic acid, but it also will tenderize the greens. After two minutes, remove the greens and drain away the excess water. Next, drop the greens into a pan coated in hot bacon grease. Cook the greens until heated throughout, and then remove. Once removed from the pan, you can season with salt, pepper and vinegar to taste.
Words of Caution
With a rich history, high nutritional value and great taste, you may be wondering how lamb’s quarters fell out of favor. It is a good question. While the answer may not be straightforward, here are a few factors that may have contributed to its decline.
Although lamb’s quarters is great feed for chickens (earning it the nickname “fat hen”), it can be poisonous to grazing animals. The problem occurs when the plant is grown under drought conditions, forcing it to absorb high levels of nitrates from the ground.
Another factor that led to the devaluing of this nutrient-dense plant was the introduction of spinach to the European table. Folks swapped out their historically valued food for one they thought was more delicious. Personally, I’ve found the taste of both leaves very palatable when boiled and seasoned.
Finally, the build-up of oxalic acid potentially can cause health problems. One such problem may be the formation of kidney stones. When experimenting with a wild food, it is best to proceed in small doses and see how your body reacts.
When weeding your summer garden, it might be worth keeping an eye open for a plant with a leaf resembling a goose’s foot. It could be a hidden boon rather than a dreaded weed. Not only will it add some additional nutrition to your plate, but it may allow you to spend less time weeding, and more time enjoying the fruits of the harvest. More nutritious, less maintenance, less money spent — what’s not to love?
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