How to Identify Lambsquarters - Foraging for Edible Wild Spinach
Referred to variously as wild spinach, fat hen, goosefoot, pigweed, and more, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is a very common edible weed found essentially everywhere in North America throughout the entire growing season.
Most of its common names allude to the fact that it’s often found growing in agricultural fields, especially low and wet areas that have been recently disturbed, for example by tilling, or moving animals through to graze.
I like the name wild spinach because I think it does a good job describing the taste and texture – plus it sounds a lot classier than “fat hen” to the uninitiated, so it’s easier to convince skeptical friends and family to give it a try. But I find lambsquarters to be the name most people are familiar with, so I generally use the two interchangeably.
The trait that makes lambsquarters super easy to identify is the fine, almost waxy powder that covers the entire plant, which is thickest and most pronounced near the growing tips. This makes the plant more or less waterproof, and may also help to ward off insects.
Wild spinach leaves are roughly triangular in shape with toothed edges sometimes outlined in a pink-purple hue, but individual plants show quite a bit of variation in leaf shape, from narrow and pointy to more rounded. Looking at the plant from overhead, you can see that the leaves all radiate out from the stem in a starburst shape.
Wild spinach stems feature pronounced purple stripes from root to tip over a pale blue-green base, which always makes me think of candy canes for some reason. I’m not aware of any other plant with a stem that looks quite like this.
Individual plants can grow very large over the course of a season, up to 7 feet tall in some especially robust cases but generally in the ballpark of 3-5 feet. As the plant matures and goes to seed it won’t be quite as delectable as earlier in the season, but still plenty edible and certainly still great as a potherb. Ideally you’ll want to pick the younger leaves and skip over the older ones, which will become more and more bitter as they age.
If you find a plant or patch of plants that you want to bush out, you can prune off the top of the main stem, which will encourage branching—and thus more tasty young foliage—at all of the nodes below it.
Foraging for lambsquarters is mainly about collecting the leaves, but the flower bud clusters and leafy stem tips are also choice foods, and can be used as substitutes for broccoli and asparagus, respectively.
You can use wild spinach greens anywhere you’d use its domesticated namesake, like in salads, stir-fries, omelets, and smoothies. It also makes a great pizza topping – just be sure to toss it in olive oil first so it doesn’t dry out when baking.
As for salads, why not try my take on a farmed-and-foraged spinach salad below:
First off, let me offer the disclaimer that recipes aren’t really my thing – I rarely follow them, and I almost never measure anything when cooking. So the recipe that I offer here is more like a sketch, or an outline for you to follow, if that makes sense.
Lambsquarters forms the base of my salad, so you’ll want to gather enough of it to fill up the bulk of your bowl. Also consider adding baby greens like lettuce, kale, mustard, arugula etc. from your garden or local farmers’ market, or perhaps some chickweed and/or wood sorrel from your yard.
The second key ingredient is the blueberries, and you’ll want a healthy handful for sure. Other berries like serviceberries, mulberries or strawberries would also work well.
Next I’d recommend nuts or seeds of some kind, like walnuts, pecans, or almonds, or perhaps sunflower or pumpkin seeds – bonus points if they’re locally sourced. A modest handful ought to be plenty for a single serving.
I would also highly advise adding cheese, particularly if you can get your hands on a nice local chèvre. Or if you’re not into goat cheese, try feta or queso fresco. The portion should be comparable to the nuts. You might also consider adding raisins or chopped dates as further accouterments, or maybe some thinly sliced red onions.
Finally, most people will probably want to toss it all in some kind of dressing. Balsamic vinegar will pair well with this salad, but I generally stick to a very simple dressing of more or less equal parts olive oil and lemon juice, plus a dash of salt.
Due to the short window in which fresh berries are available, this salad is a seasonal treat not to be missed.
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