What is it about this "wild spinach" (Chenopodium album) that makes it better than its cultivated cousin? For starters, it's free.
Well, it is if you forage it. I recently saw lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) for sale under the name wild spinach for a whopping $7.59 per pound. Whoa, mama! I’m pretty sure the farm hadn’t actually planted this choice wild edible, but was just making the most of their weeding. More power to them, but I’m glad I forage my lamb's quarters for free.
Popeye might have chosen lamb's quarters over spinach if he'd known what a nutritional superstar it is. Just one cup of the chopped leaves gives you 464 mgs of calcium (compared to 30 in spinach), and 66 mgs of vitamin C (8.4 mg in spinach).
By late spring and early summer, dandelion, dock, and many other wild edible greens have become too bitter to eat. Not lamb’s quarters. It keeps its delicious mild flavor and silky texture (when cooked) straight through the summer.
Lamb's quarters grows in parks, community gardens, parking lots, tree pits, farmlands – anywhere there's sunlight and the disturbed soil that us humans constantly create. It appears each year once nighttime temperatures are reliably above freezing.
The nutritional stats above were based on one cup of the leaves. Don’t pick just one cup though. Although lamb’s quarters is edible raw, it's tastier once cooked. Like spinach, it shrinks down a lot as it wilts during cooking. So if you want to end up with a cup of cooked lamb’s quarters, you’ll need to start out with something close to 10 cups of the raw leaves.
If that sounds discouraging, take heart: lamb’s quarters is easy to collect in quantity. Just pinch off the top several inches of each branch of the plant, or pinch out the new growth that shows up at the leaf axils. If the stems are tender enough to pinch off easily, then plan on eating them, too – no need to drive yourself crazy pinching off a leaf at a time.
Lamb’s quarters has leaves that are broader at the base than the tip, sort of like a rough triangle. The leaf margins are toothed, but those teeth aren’t sharp. The first set of true leaves is opposite (lined up with each other and joining the stem at the same height), but all subsequent leaves are alternate (joining the stem at different heights rather than in pairs).
Sometimes lamb’s quarters stems and leaves show some pinkish coloration. In fact, there is a very cute ornamental cultivar with brilliant magenta coloring.
The youngest, smallest leaves especially, but all of the leaves to some extent, will be covered with a whitish, mealy coating that rubs off when you swipe a finger across a leaf. This is your clincher for the ID.
Later in the year lamb’s quarters will produce small black seeds that are edible and good for you, although somewhat labor intensive to collect in quantity. Putting whole seed heads into paper or cloth bags, letting them dry, then later winnowing out the chaff is how I go about it.
Note: there is another plant, epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), that has a similar leaf shape and growth habit. Its crushed leaves smell like turpentine, whereas crushed lamb’s quarters leaves have no noticeable smell.
Lamb’s quarters are good in anything cooked spinach is good in. Actually,lamb’s quarters is the better-tasting vegetable, in my opinion. So yes to omelets and fritatas, ravioli filling, dip, lasagna, etc. But before you get all fancy with it, here is a simple, so good way to enjoy this wild ingredient. Yield two side-dish servings.
Lamb’s Quarters with Butter and Nutmeg
2 1/2 quarts raw lamb’s quarters leaves and tender stems
1/4 cup water
2 tsp butter
Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Wash and coarsely chop the lamb’s quarters. Place the greens in a large skillet or pot. Add the water, butter, and nutmeg.
2. Cook over medium heat, stirring almost constantly, until the lamb’s quarters is completely wilted. If there is still a lot of liquid in with the greens, raise the heat briefly and boil off most of the liquid.
3. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm, or refrigerate and use later in the week as a quick addition to eggs, greens ‘n’ beans, etc.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.