Real Food Encyclopedia | Lamb’s Quarters and Orach
Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) is a familiar weed in fields and along roadsides, but it’s also a versatile and delicious leafy vegetable. It is related to several other vegetables, including close-cousin quinoa, along with beets, spinach, orach and epazote. The hardy plants can be cultivated in farms and gardens, but it is also easily foraged, as it grows all across North America.
Orach (Atriplex hortensisis) is a close relative, and while it isn’t as widespread as lambs quarters, it’s an increasingly popular leafy green in warmer climates where it can be used in place of spinach.
Fun Facts about Lamb's Quarters:
- Lamb’s quarters goes by lots of different names, including “white goosefoot,” “pigweed,” “dungweed,” “baconweed” and “wild spinach.” One of its names, “fat hen,” comes from its supposed ability (as a feed) to fatten chickens.
- According to the “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the name “lamb’s quarters” first appeared in American print in 1804, derived from the name of an ancient English festival called “Lammas quarter,” the first harvest festival of the year, held in August.
- The plant’s high-protein seeds can be used to make flour and bread — just one plant can produce between 75,000 and 100,000 seeds.
What to Look for When Buying Lamb’s Quarters and Orach
Lamb’s quarters is a green, weedy vegetable that has a propensity to grow on newly cultivated land, roadsides and on trash and manure heaps. The plants can get quite large — as tall as seven feet — and generally have deep-green leaves shaped (supposedly) like a goose’s foot. (There are also varietals that have a bit of pink or red on the young leaves and stems.) Younger leaves have a white, powdery substance on the underside. Look for younger, smaller leaves if you want to eat the plant raw, as older leaves can get a bit tough. At the farmers’ market, seek out perky lamb’s quarters (it wilts easily), with no drying or yellow leaves. Orach leaves should also be perky and unwilted. Both red and green varieties are common.
When foraging, as always, the golden rule is to first be completely sure that what you are picking is edible, because there are several non-edible look-alikes. Be sure to check out ID guides and foraging videos if you intend to collect your own. You should also only forage from familiar areas: although you can find lamb’s quarters nearly everywhere, limit your gathering to places where you’re certain it isn’t sprayed with herbicides or exposed to road salt and other chemicals.
Sustainability of Lamb’s Quarters and Orach
Lamb’s quarters can thrive in dry conditions and poor soils, so it tends to be very low impact when farmed since it needs few chemicals and little water. Foraging your own is also very low impact so long as you follow local regulations and are careful not to disturb other wildlife.
Orach can also thrive in dry conditions, and can be found growing wild in coastal areas as well as dry hills and mountains in places like California.
Lamb’s quarters is available from early summer through fall’s first frost. It will be virtually impossible to find from your local grocery store — seek it out at your local farmers’ market, or forage for it yourself.
Orach can be found year-round in areas without frost, but it is most plentiful during the cooler months of the year, especially the spring and fall.
Eating Lamb’s Quarters and Orach
Lamb’s quarters doesn’t keep for very long; wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in a zip-top bag in the fridge, it keeps for no more than a couple of days. Orach is slightly more sturdy, but should also be used quickly.
Lamb’s quarters can be eaten both raw and cooked (but see our note in “Nutrition,” below, about oxalic acid and saponins in the raw plant). Give the leaves a good rinse before eating to get rid of the (normal) white, powdery bloom on them. If cooking, the veggie fares better when it is quickly sautéed or steamed; its delicate leaves tend to disintegrate if cooked for a long period of time. Like spinach, it pairs well with alliums (think onions and garlic), with cream (as in this cream of lamb’s quarters soup) with cheese (especially hard cheeses like Parmesan) and with citrus (think lemon and orange). Here is a nice recipe roundup of ideas on how to cook lamb’s quarters, including a green smoothie, lamb’s quarters salad and lamb’s quarters with beans.
Lamb’s quarters is common in Indian cuisine (especially North Indian dishes) and is used much like other greens in raitas and daals. Its Hindi name is bathua. The green is also eaten in Korea and China, wild harvested as one of the “mountain vegetables” so prized in Korean cuisine and a popular “wild green” in China. Here’s a yummy recipe for a Korean lamb’s quarters side dish with chiles and sesame, and a similar Chinese dish using chiles, soy sauce and black vinegar.
Orach can easily be substituted for lamb’s quarters in any dish, though older leaves are better suited for cooking than eating raw. In the Mediterranean and other areas, it is a common substitute for spinach.
Like other so-called “weeds” (like purslane), lamb’s quarters and orach are incredibly nutritious. They are high in fiber, protein and is loaded with both Vitamins A and C. Lamb’s quarters is also high in manganese, calcium, copper and has a bit of iron, and is high in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Like spinach and other greens, both orach and lambs quarters contain oxalic acid, which can be both a stomach irritant and can impede the absorption of calcium. Cooking eliminates most oxalic acid — but go easy if you choose to eat them raw. And like quinoa, the seeds of lamb’s quarters contain saponin, which can also be a stomach irritant. Saponin can be reduced by rinsing and cooking leaves and seeds.
Top photo by orestligetka/Adobe Stock.