Monday, August 6, 2012

Urban Foraging

Urban foraging is a lot like angling in New York Harbor: you can catch barking sea robins that you have to toss back all afternoon, and then at some point, usually at the end of the day and when the boat is about to head back to port, there’s a tug on your line, and then voila! A fluke or flounder, depending on the season, appears. And before you know it, everyone else in the boat is pulling fish out of the water too.

All the seasons I went being blind to lambsquarters cumulated in my finally discovering it recently at Cuyler Gore Park — where spriggy stalks of goosefoot-shaped leaves were growing happily next to patches of lady’s thumb and mugwort. Then, an hour later, while heading towards Lafayette Avenue, I found lambsquarters again growing at the base of a tree.

Chenopodium album, also called white goosefoot, pigweed, and in Britain, fat-hen, is in the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family, making it related to quinoa, beets and spinach. Like its cousin quinoa, it’s sort of a super-food — high in Vitamins A and C, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, manganese, potassium and iron.

The best way to identify lambsquarters is by a very distinctive mealy white or lavender powder present in the center whorl of the new growth’s tip or just underneath the leaves — and of course by the alternate tell-tale leaves themselves, which vary from the older diamond-shape to the younger goosefoot ones.

Like many weeds, it’s a foreign invader (European), and grows throughout the country. In Brooklyn, it flourishes in parks, lawns and any open patch of sunny green space it can find. This time of year, the young shoots and leaves are flavorful and tender, and the plant is edible until winter’s first frost.

Remember to pick from the top and to take only quantities that you will use, making sure to leave enough for others to enjoy. (Note: lambsquarters absorbs nitrates readily, so avoid gathering in contaminated soil. And beware of malodorous lookalikes — safe-to-eat lambsquarters does not emit a bad or resinous smell when you crush its leaves between your fingers.)

Urban Forager: Sheepish About Lambsquarters (New York Times Blog)