Four thousand years ago, the native people of North America’s eastern woodlands cultivated a protein-rich superfood. Variously called lamb’s-quarters, goosefoot, or pigweed, the plant (Chenopodium album) has been all but forgotten by the modern food system. (Though you may be familiar with its widely cultivated South American relative quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa.) While this mildly flavored and nutritious vegetable is not for sale at the grocery store, its benefits can still be enjoyed by modern foragers.
Ancient farmers grew lamb’s-quarters for its grain-like seeds, but this article will focus on lamb’s-quarter leaves, which are the easiest part of the plant to gather and prepare. As a leafy green, its vitamin and mineral content is among the highest ever tested, leaving more commonly cultivated greens in the dust. It is an especially excellent source of riboflavin, calcium, zinc, and manganese. And because this plant is so easy to find, these health benefits are available to even the least experienced foragers.
Lamb’s-quarters are everywhere. They readily colonize disturbed soils and grow widely in gardens and on roadsides. I’d challenge you not to find some in your local community garden or between the crop rows of a nearby organic farm. The waxy-feeling, diamond-shaped leaves are easy to identify. And while two members of the genus are not edible, they can be readily distinguished by their strong odor. Some toxic nightshades (Solanum spp.) may have leaves that look similar, but they are hairy and lack the lamb’s-quarters waxy feeling.
As with most garden greens, there is no more to processing lamb’s-quarters than picking and washing. There is no need to remove the leaves from the stems, as long as you are mindful to pick only the tender tips from the ends of each branch. I like to reserve a patch in our garden for the lamb’s-quarters that grow there as weeds. Each week or so, I trim off a generous serving with kitchen shears. When you wash lamb’squarters, you will notice an unusual mealy powder on the leaves and stems. To remove this powder takes some rubbing, so I usually don’t bother. It is not harmful and disappears when cooked. Once washed, I like to chop the greens before cooking to ensure mouthful-sized bites in the finished dish.
The best way to begin cooking with lamb’squarters is to substitute it in your favorite recipes that call for spinach. The cooking instructions will be similar, though lamb’s-quarters maintain more of their volume and firmness.
The flavor of lamb’s-quarters greens is subtle and mild. Their firm texture is a pleasant change from cultivated greens that wilt under heat. They are not quite as flavorful as some other favored wild greens like stinging nettles, but unlike stinging nettle, lamb’s-quarters have the advantage of being available for nearly the entire summer. This long season, ready availability, and unparalleled nutrition make lamb’s-quarters one of my favorite wild greens.
Lamb’s-quarters Ricotta Pie
1 pound fresh lamb’s-quarters leaves
(about 6 cups), rinsed and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
salt and pepper
1 pie crust
Preheat oven to 375°. Sauté lamb’s-quarters in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until wilted – just a few minutes. Beat eggs in a large mixing bowl. Add lamb’s-quarters, remaining olive oil, ricotta cheese, and cheddar. Mix well. Add salt and pepper as desired. Pour into the prepared pie crust. Bake until the top is browned and a knife comes out clean (about 1 hour).