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Ingredient In Focus: Lamb's Quarters

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 24, 2010 7:20PM

Much ink has been spilled and bandwidth burned writing about that "invasive" species, Asian carp, and how chefs like Lockwood's Phillip Foss are looking at their presence not as a nuisance, but an opportunity to educate and sustain.

There's another invasive species that's also here to stay and sometimes all you need to do is look as far as a planter box to find it. Chenopodium album, also known as goosefoot, pigweed, huazontle (in Mexican markets) or most commonly as lamb's quarters, is easy to spot and grows pretty much anywhere the seeds can land. They're easily identifiable at a young from their footprint-like shape. Left to grow, lamb's quarters form tall stalks, while the leaves lengthen and lose their early distinguishable features. Since this is a weed, the first impulse is to break out the hoe, pull it from the ground by the roots or, worse, spray it with Roundup. That is, until I found my Chinese neighbors gathering them by the sack a couple years back, to the horror of lifelong Bridgeport residents aghast that they would eat weeds. One neighbor commented, "If it's green, leafy and grows from a crack in the alley, they'll eat it."

Lamb's quarters, however, are one of nature's nutritional bombs right up there with dandelion, nettles and watercress. A close cousin to spinach, lamb's quarters are more nutritious than their more popular relative and have a flavor akin to a subtler version of arugula. They work well as part of a spring green mix, along with dandelion, spinach and Swiss chard. Or they can be sautéed with some shallot or garlic and incorporated as an ingredient in another dish. Bijan's Bistro chef Art Jackson, who also writes the website Pleasanthouse with his wife Chelsea, wrote about the many ways he cooks with lamb's quarters. Michael Gebert, meanwhile, called eating lamb's quarters a "calculated risk, based on how you feel about the soil in your area."

As one with a regular backyard garden in a neighborhood of them, I try to take the risk. But I have to wake up early to beat the Chinese to the lamb's quarters. Kinnikinnick Farm had lamb's quarters for sale last weekend at their Green City Market booth. I sliced a cup of the leaves as a chiffonade. Then I sautéed them until wilted with shallots in Dietzler Farms ground beef. The mixture was used with ricotta cheese and some egg noodle lasagna from Pasta Puttana to make cannelloni with a Béchamel sauce.