Saturday, March 19, 2011

Foraging 7: Let’s not weed out our Chenopodium album this year!

But make no mistake: the weeds will win; nature bats last. – Robert M. Pyle

Weeds are an inevitable part of a garden. Photo: Ruthieki, Flickr, ccl
Here’s a forage plant that is unbelievably common and whose culinary use has been forgotten by most North Americans. Like many native plants, if it’s not sown on purpose it’s a weed, regardless of any beneficial uses. End of story. Or is it?

Look familiar? Photo: Wikki Commons
My father had a vegetable garden for probably about 40 years. He had a constant battle with weeds, as all gardeners do. I hated having to help pull them out. Nasty work, weeding is.

Until very recently I didn't know that what we were pulling out is actually a cultivated crop in several parts of the world, particularly Northern India. In Europe and North America chenopodium album goes by many names. Fat-hen, goosefoot, pigweed, dungweed… Not very glowing endorsements, eh?

It is also called Lamb’s Quarters. If you live in the northern hemisphere you will recognize the plant immediately. It loves disturbed soil areas. Early European settlers used it as a substitute for spinach. It also is used as a grain crop, being closely related to quinoa. 

Lamb’s Quarters is best eaten before it reaches 15 cm in height. It contains a fair amount of oxalic acid (3,000 times stronger than acetic acid), so should be eaten in moderation, in other words, not every day. Members of the spinach family are also high in oxalates, just so you know.

The leaves and young stems can be steamed or boiled in the same manner as spinach, as well as substituted for spinach in recipes.

Photo: Wikki Commons
Being true to it’s “weed” definition, each plant produces tens of thousands of black seeds. These are high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. After a drying period, they can be cooked as cereal, ground into flour, added to muffins or used in breads. That would be easy enough to try.

To harvest the seeds I would suggest bagging the tops of the plants when they reach maturity and the pods are developed. This will also help keep the recurrence of Lamb’s Quarters to a minimum, one would assume.

Sarson Da Saag is a popular curry in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan made from mustard leaves (sarson) and spices. Lamb’s Quarters is a common substitution for the mustard leaves.

As always harvest from an unpolluted site. Do not harvest from inorganically fertilized soils, as it will absorb the chemicals in the soil.

Sarson Da Saag 
Lamb’s Quarters and Spinach with Paneer*

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tbsp chopped garlic
1/2 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
4 jalapeno peppers, diced and seeded (or other hot green chillis)
4 cups lamb’s quarters leaves and stems (young plants), chopped
1 bunch young spinach, chopped (sold bundled in the grocery, about 1 lb)
1/2 cup water
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp garam masala
1/8 cup ground cashews
3/4 tsp salt
1 lb paneer, cubed and pre-fried to golden
2 limes
Salt and pepper to taste

Saag. Photo: gtwndr87, Flickr ccl
Heat 1 tbsp of the the oil in a large saucepan with a cover. Add the garlic, ginger and chillies and sauté for about 2 minutes. Then add the lamb’s quarters and spinach. Sauté until well wilted. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and then purée in a food processor with 1/2 cup water.

Add the remaining oil to the pan. Sauté the onion until golden and just starting to brown. Add the puréed mixture back in and allow to come back up to heat. Stir in turmeric, garam masala, cashews and salt. Mix well to incorporate. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low and simmer for between 5-7 minutes.

Add the paneer cubes, replace the pot cover and let simmer for a further 3 minutes.

Serve with rice, with cracked black pepper and lime wedges at the table. Another good accompaniment would be fresh naan. (Naan recipe here:

* paneer is a soft, unripened Indian cheese with the consistency of extra firm tofu.


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