In most temperate climes the beginning of summer is an odd time for foragers, at least for those who forage for food rather than medicine. The bounty of the early spring herb harvest is over, the dandelions, nettles and mustard garlics have grown too big and old, too tough and stringy or have otherwise become unpalatable. There are some edible herbs that will last into the summer, but very few that will actually reach their prime at that time. Lambs Quarters is one of those exceptions. When nettles are beginning to set seed, Lambs Quarter and its close relative, Good King Henry take over as the wild spinach herb par excellence.
Lambs Quarters belong to the family of Chenopodiums, which translates as 'Goosefoot' in allusion to the shape of the leaves, which some botanist has fancied to resemble the webbed feet of geese. This family of plants, though humble in appearance, includes such luminaries as Quinoa, the fabled grain of the Incas, Epazote, the Mexican bean spice and 'Good King Henry', a well-known potherb of the Old World. Lambs Quarters is the most common member of this inconspicuous family, a humble herb that favours waste grounds and other grimy places. It is now considered an invasive weed in many parts of the US. How low it has fallen from its once honoured position as a cultivar of the Old World, where it enjoyed some considerable esteem for its nutritional properties and mild flavour.
From a distance Lambs Quarters always looks dusty, a deceptive trick due to a white powdery coating on the leaves. On closer inspection this powdery stuff proves to be quite a remarkable repellent: try washing the herb and you will notice that water simply beads and runs off. Thus rinsing it under running water can be a bit of a futile exercise, you have to actually submerge the entire herb and swish it around in order to wash it thoroughly. Luckily it is not the kind of herb you will often find encrusted with dirt - dirt seems to be removed from the plant's surface in much the same way as the water. However, insidious dirt, such as soil pollutants and artificial fertilizers pose a far greater threat. Lambs Quarters is a 'purifier herb' and in its effort to cleanse the soil, it absorbs these pollutants and concentrates them in its leaves. Thus foragers should be weary of patches where this plant grows in abundance - it could be an indication of soil pollution. At the very least you should investigate what gets dumped in nearby fields or streams. Another abnormality to watch for is a reddish hue on the leaves, which indicates that spinach leaf miner larvae are squatting in the foliage.
Lambs Quarters can be collected throughout the summer. The plants come up in late spring and while tender can be collected whole. As they get older, taller and tougher, restrict your harvest to the tender tops. Flowers and seeds are edible as well, so you can continue the harvest throughout the summer. The herb is best used as a spinach type vegetable in broth or as a green vegetable. Collect plenty if you want to make a meal of it as it reduces tremendously when boiled or steamed.
It can also be used raw in salads, alone or with other greens. It does contain oxalic acid and for this reason it is best not to overdo it, especially when eating the raw herb. People with kidney problems should avoid this herb since the crystals can irritate the kidneys.
Native Americans used to gather the flowers to dry and grind them into a flour, which can be used as an admixture to other flours. It vaguely resembles buckwheat.
In some countries (e.g. Canada, U.S.) this herb is known as 'pigweed' as once upon a time it used to be grown as pig feed. In Europe both Chenopodium album and its close relative 'Good King Henry' used to be cultivated as potherbs.
Lambs Quarters can be used as a spinach substitute either by itself or mixed with other greens. Try it as a filling for cannelloni or lasagne or ravioli, if you are a nifty pasta maker. It is also excellent as a filling for pastries, e.g. puff pastry filled with lambs quarters, cottage cheese, mushrooms and garlic, or add it to pies, crusts, omelettes or savory pancakes
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