To be honest, it took me quite a while to fall in love with lamb’s quarters.
But once I learned how to make “quelites”, a traditional Mexican dish, I became very attached. Maybe I even need them, like I “need” cheese in my life. Certainly, my enchanted pantry would be a sadder, less magical place without them.
This month, I’m attempting to gather up enough to see us through the winter. Many an evening I’ve been spotted by the local wildlife running barefoot upriver to the lamb’s quarters patch, piling up my greens for the night in an old sarong, then wrapping it up and slinging it over my shoulder for the mile walk back to the kitchen.
I have three ways I like to preserve lamb’s quarters or “goose-foot,” Chenopodium album, a plant that is known in the US Southwest more often as “pig-weed” or “quelites”. The Spanish word “quelites” refers to the traditional Mexican dish or the lamb’s quarters plant itself. It can also refer to amaranth greens, and they are often prepared the same way. Most often, they are boiled and then sautéed with minced onions and red chile, sometimes adding mashed beans near the end of the cooking time.
The first easy preservation trick is pesto. Lamb’s quarters pesto might sound odd, but its flavor is wonderful! I don’t love all herbal pestos, and I was skeptical, since I’m not a huge fan of raw lamb’s quarters…but this is one that makes me very happy.
The second is to boil it and freeze it, which also works very well. Of course this takes up precious freezer space, however, so my third and favorite way to preserve lamb’s quarters is to dry them.
Here in New Mexico, this is easy. It’s usually so dry here that all I have to do is strip the leaves into aluminum bowls or baskets about a third to half full and stir the leaves around a few times a day in our outdoor, shaded kitchen. Or in a storage shed, near the ceiling. In about 3 days they are usually crispy-dry, and ready to bag up into gallon or two gallon ziplock bags.
I used to leave the plants whole and dry the lamb’s quarters on giant tarps, or hang them in bunches, moving them indoors at night. But what ends up happening is that it becomes difficult to separate the leaf matter from the stem matter once the plants dry. It’s also time consuming to remove the woody stem matter I’ve missed in the first processing from cooked dishes. I no longer do it this way. Partially because we no longer see acres of them every summer here in the canyon, ever since New Mexico has been in a drought. So I end up harvesting less than I used to, but able to give them more focused attention. Which results in a better end product.
If you don’t live in a dry climate, I suggest harvesting them in small batches, stripping the leaves off, and spreading them in a fairly thin layer in baskets or in on the trays of a dehydrator. Be sure to check them at least once a day and stir them around as soon as they get partially dry. It will make a big difference. As soon as the leaves are all brittle, they’re done. If you’ve done a good job turning them often enough, the leaves will still be a beautiful bluish green, just a slightly different shade than when they were fresh, with little to no yellow or brown leaves. Congratulations!
Dried lamb’s quarters, once reconstituted and cooked as I mentioned above, or in the recipe below, taste almost identical to fresh ones. It’s rather amazing, really. And they keep incredibly well, as long as they’re stored in a cool dark place. I’ve used two or even three year old dried lamb’s quarters that tasted almost the same as some that had been stored for just a few months. That said, I do make an effort to use up my bags of them in as timely a way as possible.
Harvesting and processing lamb’s quarters is a time investment, for sure. But to me, admiring our stash of dried lamb’s quarters is one of those joyful things about the fall and winter that I look forward to each year. And getting to cook with and to eat them is even better!
Quelites and parsnips, anyone? With goat’s milk?
Elka’s Quelites with Goat Milk and Parsnip
This is not quite-so traditional, with the addition of goat’s milk and parsnip. But I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody’s grandmother figured out something very similar long before I did!
5-6 cups raw lamb’s quarters leaves, or 3 cups dried leaves
3-4 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2-2 teaspoons salt
1 large onion, or 2 medium onions, diced small or minced
1 large parsnip, diced
2 cups goat milk (or whole milk or coconut milk– all work well!)
1/2 – 1 teaspoon mild red chile powder, paprika, or crushed chile pequin
Boil the lamb’s quarters leaves until tender, about 5 minutes. If using dried leaves, boil for 10-15 minutes, making sure they’re submerged once the water returns to a boil. Don’t worry about the weird smell, unless it smells something like turpentine, in which case you got the wrong plant. Rinse once after boiling if you’re very sensitive to oxalic acid, or if you only like mild flavored greens.
In a 12” pan, preferably cast iron, sauté the onion and the diced parsnip in half of the butter or oil with half of the salt. Once they’re just tender, add the boiled lamb’s quarters, drained a bit, and the rest of the butter or oil and salt. Sauté until most of the excess liquid is gone, and then add the goat’s milk. Sauté in the goat’s milk for about ten more minutes, or…until you taste it and you can’t stop eating it, whichever happens first!
Wishing you all a beauteous late summer!
A few notes of interest concerning lamb’s quarters:
From the pictures I’ve seen, the color of lamb’s quarters can vary quite a lot. Here it’s usually a fairly brilliant shade of green when it’s fairly young, with a very fine white coating. When it gets older the leaves are more substantial, thicker, and have a more blue-grey cast to them. Or at least that’s how ours are here.
There’s some interesting information on lamb’s quarters that I didn’t know in this article by Katrina Blair on the Mother Earth News blog.
She (Katrina) also speaks of the change in flavor that happens in older lamb’s quarters which is due to a build up oxalic acids and the physical effect it can have when eaten raw– This has never happened to me, but I don’t eat it raw very often. Also, boiling it before sautéing it gets rid of a lot of the oxalic acids and improves its “mouthfeel”.
Kiva used to get belly problems whenever she ate even boiled and then sautéed lamb’s quarters. So I tried rinsing it after boiling it, and this has worked. I doubt there are many folks as sensitive to as many foods as Kiva is, but just in case, it’s good to know! It probably rinses out some of the nutrients, though.
Susun Weed sautés dehydrated quelites seeds with onion being used for adding to tomato sauce and says that folks think she’s put meat in the sauce. Interesting!
In Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, he calls lamb’s quarters and purslane “two of the most nutritious plants in the world”.
From the Urban Forager (a not-being-updated blog by Ava Chin) this little gem that made me smile– ‘cause she soo gets just how tasty this amazing plant is, and had a similarly slow learning process about it!
“Since I was so under-impressed with lamb’s quarters raw– it registered as a zero in my palate in its natural state- I didn’t expect to be wowed once I got it into my kitchen. But after sautéing it in olive oil and adding a little bit of salt, I took my first bit and nearly dropped my fork… I wasn’t prepared for it to out-spinach spinach.
It was a little like the first time you try truffles – the kind you need a pig to find – or your first really good kiss. I envy anyone their first bite.”