As I’ve pregnant these past months, eating dark, leafy greens has been taking an even bigger priority in my diet lately. Andrew and I scour the stores that we pass, looking for deals and decently priced produce. I rejoiced when I found Kale for 25 cents a bundle at one of our favorite markets, and wept silently at the organic Spinach that was priced at more than $8 a pound.
However, we have a secret. No matter how delicious that wallet-guzzling Spinach looks, it will never seduce us…we have pounds of local, organically-grown, fresh greens at our disposal at any time, and it’s all free. I don’t want you to think that it was our garden that has been able to fill our Spinach-need, either…our poor, drought-beleaguered ground was pathetically under-productive this year. Like, country-ballad, wrecked-my-truck-because-I-hit-my-dog-and-then-my-girlfriend-turned-out-to-be-a-cop-who-then-wrote-me-a-ticket sad. Nope, we were able to eat from our itty-bitty urban lot for many meals thanks to the provision of an under-appreciated weed that grows in our yard all on its own.
This entry is Andrew and my gastronomic love letter to Chenopodium album or, as it is sometimes called, Wild Spinach/ Lamb’s Quarters/ Goosefoot/ Pigweed/Fat Hen, etc. (I’m getting flashbacks of reading Lord of the Rings when I had to explain to my sister that Strider/Aragorn/Elessar/Estel/Dúnadan/Isildur’s Heir were all references to the same guy).
Read on to find out more about this amazingly versatile plant!
This multi-named plant was one of the first wild edibles that Andrew and I nerded over while dating, and we can’t even tell you how awesome it is. Not only is it super-drought resistant (as we found out this year), it is incredibly productive, producing stalks that can get to 7 feet high in certain conditions. Even with our lack of rain this year and my constant dinnertime pruning of new growth, our plants are still more than waist-high. We really felt like God blessed us with this one!
And it’s delicious. The flavor is very reminiscent of Spinach when cooked (apparently it’s a close relative), but it lacks the mineral-weird, tooth-squeaky feeling that classic spinach creates in my mouth. There is, instead, a more wild, almost floral note that I haven’t tasted in much other cultivated food.
Though it is inaccurate to say that this plant has gone entirely uncultivated. According to our favorite wild-food-expert, Samuel Thayer, Goosefoot (as he calls it) was once widely cultivated across the Americas. Most of the cultivars seemed to have been discontinued as time passed and other plants were given priority, but one specimen of the Chenopodium genus has stood the test of time and is gracing the shelves of health-food stores everywhere. You’ve probably eaten it, and briefly puzzled about precisely how to pronounce the name of the Chenopodium quinoa plant. (Don’t be ashamed! I was once a “quin-oh-ahh” speaker as well, but I now can sound like any foodie worth her salt.)
So! If I have intrigued you enough, here’s our tips on finding and identifying this most delicious of leafy greens if you’re located in the Midwestern US (there’s other edible varieties, but this is the one we know well). As with any wild edible, exercise caution before you go out chewing on the turf. Wild edibles are nothing to be afraid of, but if you’re new to plant ID, I would definitely get some outside confirmation before you eat it.
In sunny areas, or even the edges of forests, look for a dark, bluish-green, alternately placed leaf with very clear veins. Our front-yard plants have very deep teeth, but I’ve seen specimens with more shallow ones. There is an absence of hairs on any part of the plant. The defining characteristic is the presence of a white, powdery substance on the underside of the leaves (particularly conspicuous on the tips of vigorously growing plants).
It can make the undersides of the leaves look almost glittery, and it can be rubbed/washed off once they are harvested (though it is not harmful). The plants can be found once the threat of frost is well past and the days are warm, all the way until the first cold snap in the fall. The young plants are entirely edible, and once it has grown to size, the young growth and leaves are always edible (but we have found that the stems become unpalatably tough). I have read that the seeds are also edible and similar to their quinoa compatriots, but Thayer writes that the harvesting/drying/threshing of the seeds is very time consuming and results in a relatively small amount of food (that's an Ain'tNobodyGotTimeForThat situation for me).
As a safety note, you should only harvest wild spinach from ground that you trust. Apparently, another awesome feature of this plant is its ability to remediate toxic soil. It can grow where few other plants can, and help heal the ground where there was pollution. If you’ve never heard of bioremediation and phytoremediation, I promise to gush excitedly about the topic sometime soon. However, it does means you shouldn’t go to an abandoned battery-manufacturing factory and get your dinner from its parking lot. Really, as a life rule, you probably shouldn’t eat anything from an abandoned factory parking lot.
Our wild spinach is growing from ground that hadn’t been messed with for at least 3 years before we started eating it. We feel confident that it is safe now, and have eaten it and fed it to our family without hesitation.
I have also heard that some people’s tongues get irritated when they eat too much spinach, and the same will apply to mass consumption of Wild Spinach. I have never experienced this (though my tongue does go numb when I eat pineapple…), but be wise.
If you are feeling adventurous, go out there and get some free, healthy, delicious food! Early next week, I will post some of my favorite recipes that we've made with Wild Spinach: wild summer salad, stir-fried wild spinach and Totally Inauthentic Fatayer Pie!
For more information on Wild Spinach /Goosefoot/Pigweed/Lamb’s Quarters, keep researching!
The Forager’s Harvest, Samuel Thayer
Information on Nutritional Content
Wild Edible Site with more pictures
We are a husband and wife who are trying to live simply. We are learning much as we transition from life in the city to life in the country. Come along with us, and maybe you can also learn a thing or two as well.
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Simple Life Homestead