Sunday, May 1, 2016

Forager's Find: Lamb's Quarters

It's time for you to discover lamb's quarters! 

A common 'weed' that is also known as goosefoot, fat hen, and smooth pigweed, lamb's quarters is a plant you may have overlooked. Tasty and abundant, and common nearly everywhere human beings live, it is the perfect forager's find. The leaves taste incredibly similar to spinach, and the raw stems taste like asparagus.

I discovered Lamb's Quarters last summer. Once I recognized the distinct shape and growing pattern of the leaves, I realized I'd been pulling and tossing them into the compost for years. Once I actually tasted a leaf, I knew I'd just hit a jackpot.

More than A Weed; This Plant has A Story

Lamb's Quarters has a rich and interesting history. It has followed the spread of civilization for thousands of years, and has been traced as far back as the Neolithic (stone age) peoples. Through the ages it has been revered as an important and delicious wild food, growing in abundance wherever the land has been disturbed. It has a tendency to grow and spread prolifically, and for that reason some settlements were actually named after it! Though most obviously eaten raw or lightly cooked, the seeds were also used by different groups of peoples. Some American Indians still grind the seeds into a flour to make a dark, nutritious bread.

Though gardeners pull this 'weed' from their garden and usually curse if its gone to seed, I argue that it has an important role to play. Tenth Acre Farm includes it in the top 5 weeds you actually want in your garden because it accumulates so many nutrients in its taproots and also loosens the soil. In Carrots Love Tomatoes, garden expert Louise Riotte claims that allowing a little lamb's quarters to grow alongside certain crops actually aids their growth, vitality, and sometimes taste. In her list of lamb's quarters companions; potatoes, corn, cucumber, melons, and marigolds. You don't necessarily want lamb's quarters to grow uninhibited, since it spreads so readily, but allowing small patches to grow here and there may help your garden out a bit while providing you with occasional harvests of fresh greens through the summer.

Lamb's Quarters VS Spinach

It's a smack-down! Before spinach hit the scene in the sixteenth century, lamb's quarters was one of the most valuable greens of European settlers, since it grew natively and with virtually no effort. However, some settlers brought spinach from southwest Asia and this novel, cultivated green rapidly became more popular. The historically noted contest between lamb's quarters and spinach is interesting to me, since I've always found that they taste so similar (and in fact, are from the same plant family).

This spring in my garden, lamb's quarters WINS. Despite carefully sowing and tending my spinach, it barely grew. I did nothing for the lamb's quarters and it created a bounty. It keeps providing greens for us even as the days grow hotter, long past the time when spinach would bolt. I'm not saying I'm giving up on spinach, far from it; I plan to make spinach one of my biggest cool-weather crops this fall and winter. But as the lamb's quarters in our garden continues to grow and we continue to enjoy it, I'm declaring it a champion.

Spinach and lamb's quarters are very similar nutritionally. Lamb's quarters is richer in vitamin C and vitamin A than spinach, though spinach contains more potassium and iron. Both are very rich in calcium. In the kitchen, these plants are interchangeable--you can substitute lamb's quarters for spinach in most dishes, or use a little of both.

Harvest in your Backyard or Find a Wild Patch

You can enjoy lamb's quarters all summer long without having to plant it or tend to it; it can be found virtually everywhere, and thrives from June through September in most zones.

If harvesting from your garden, it's easiest to cut the stem at the base of the plant. This will prevent too much disturbance of the soil--the roots will decompose underground and help create humus--and will keep your harvest nice and clean, since the huge roots tend to spray dirt if pulled. The stem can get quite thick, so you may need to use bypass loppers or pruners if your scissors aren't quite up to the task.

*A word of caution--lamb's quarters, due do its thick, deep taproot, absorbs nutrients from the soil, especially nitrogen. Along with nutrients, the plant can absorb pesticides and other impurities. For this reason, please do NOT forage lamb's quarters from industrial fields (they are a major weed in soybean fields). I would avoid foraging them anywhere you question the purity of the soil, as well. In your own organic backyard, there should not be an issue.

Most gardeners will tell you eliminate lamb's quarters before it goes to seed, or it will take over the garden (after all, one plant has the potential to produce up to 75,000 seeds--some dormant and some non-dormant). The dormant seeds can burrow into the soil and stay for up to 20 years or more!  Despite the warning, I left one plant alone last fall and let it go to seed, and sure enough, come spring I had a bountiful harvest.

Lamb's quarters that has gone to seed:
 quite beautiful in its own right, resembling amaranth.

This spring we had quite a harvest of lamb's quarters.
I have a feeling this weed is here to stay--and that's okay with me!

As long as I keep it in check in early spring, harvesting all or most of the tender leaves before they go to seed, I'm hoping to keep lamb's quarters around as a managed, edible weed, year after year. 

Once I've eaten what I want, I weed out every remaining plant, and top the garden beds with fresh compost so that my annual vegetable plants can take over for the summer.

Enjoy Lamb's Quarters as one of the first greens of the year, in any recipe you'd use spinach. Click here to check out my recipe for Lamb's Quarters Poppers ....they are so good! 

DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affiliate links. I'm eligible to receive a small commission whenever a product is purchased through these links. Click Here for my full disclosure!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Worms on The Blacktop

"Attention staff and students: pardon the interruption. We will be having outdoor recess today. Students, please stay on the blacktop only."

Relieved that we wouldn't be stuck in the classroom again (indoor recess is the pits when a roomful of second graders need nothing more than to run outside), I glanced out the window to see that the drizzling rain from the morning had stopped. Staying on the blacktop outside on the playground would be a good call. The ground was saturated from days of intermittent rain, meaning there would be puddles--full of mud--all over the place. And if the kids ventured into the mud, the mess inside the school would be unbearable.

As an assistant in a second grade classroom, I not only help with their academics, but I am in charge of the students during their recess and lunch. A morning full of work finished, I ate a quick lunch in the lounge, then put on my coat and headed back to the classroom to pick the kids up. "ABC order, please. You should see the head of the person in front of you. Quiet in the hallway! Let's go." My demands were becoming second nature.

Within minutes of stepping outside, I heard the screams from the kids who'd run ahead at full speed toward the blacktop. "Ewwww!" "Worms, oh I HATE worms!!!" "Yuck, don't step on them!" "Yes, Step on them, kill them!" I reached the end of the sidewalk and stopped: the large square patch of asphalt in the center of our outside play area had been transformed into a lake of worms.

It seems every year there is a day when the water inside the ground becomes too much to bear, and the worm-world under the soil turns itself inside out.

I was stuck for a moment in-between: my new life, versus my 'old life', which seemed like a thousand years ago. Had it only been one short year since the last time thousands of worms migrated to the surface of the earth, their homes saturated with snow melt and spring rain?

Some kids hopped clumsily and others stepped gingerly around me, while my mind drifted back to the year before.

One Year Earlier...I was still a daycare provider in my home, with just a handful of littles in my care. Our days were gentle, happy. When the snow melted and the relentless rain brought worms out, we delighted in it, stepping out in the drizzling rain to admire the spectacle. It seemed like the entire world had been smeared with worms--they were everywhere; the driveway, the patio, the sidewalk next to the garden. We bent down and watched them squirm, and I told the littles how much we owed to those worms. The worms are so important, I explained, not only to our garden, but to the entire earth. We should always love them. If we see one struggling to get out of a puddle, we should carefully pick it up and move it to dryer ground. Of course I went insanely over-the-top with the worm love, because over-the-top is what kids remember. I wanted the littles in my care to see worms in a new way, and not just think of them as a plaything, or even 'disgusting', but rather, crucial to our existence.

"Mrs. P!!! I can't step anywhere...the worms!!! They are so gross!!!"

The shout snapped me out of my daydream and I looked at my current charges. No longer a handful of them, but dozens. Kids I'd gotten to know during the previous seven months and who had changed my life. They had their teachers, who obviously had the most influence on them during the school days, but they had me and the other assistants as well.

At the beginning of the school year, the only words I could find to describe my job as an assistant were demanding. Emotional. Exhausting. As the year has progressed and I've gained footing, I've found new words to describe my daily work: Deeply satisfying. Exhausting-but-worth-it. Hope-filled. My purpose. The range of experiences and emotions I'd had during the past seven months changed me profoundly, but made me realize; there is no where else I want to be but in a classroom.

A child ran past and bumped into me, knocking me a bit off my footing. Watching the indiscriminate stomping and careening of children, I started to feel upset, like the over-sensitive softy I've been since I was a child myself.

I started with the kids nearest me, holding my hands out as my feet stood still, fearing that I'd step on yet another worm. "Hold on a minute...let's talk about these worms. Do you realize all the work they do? Do you know how important they are?" Like a street vendor, I called out to whoever was near, repeating myself until several kids gathered around, curious.

"Seriously! If we had no worms, we wouldn't have such nice soil for our grass and gardens and flowers. There would be garbage all over the place if the worms didn't eat it up."

Skeptical glances came my way, and couple kids jumped off, their attention already gone. A few other kids stayed close, their curiosity piqued.

"But Mrs. P, they are gross. They are slimy. Who cares if we squish them."

I turned to Gabe, one of my more soulful students. "Gabe, I have a job for you. Would you like to help with a rescue mission? Let's see how many worms we can move over to the grass. We NEED worms. And right now, they need us."

Most kids adore being given a job, any job, to feel important and needed. Gabe practically saluted me before he bent down to start picking up worms, tentative but determined. Of course, upon seeing another student doing something important, several other kids instantly bent down to grab their own worms. I had to stifle a giggle--sometimes kids are just so predictable and easy.

For the next 10 minutes, a worm rescue effort bloomed. At least ten kids helped, piling worms in the safety of the grass, where they would no longer be vulnerable to the feet of running and jumping children. It was too late for many worms, and we passed them over with an appropriate amount of solemnity. A blur of other kids ran by us, completely oblivious, but my focus was on those who stopped to help.

"Do worms have eyes?" "Are there baby worms?" "What do they eat?" "How do they move without legs?"

A couple kids were looking more closely at the objects of rescue in their hands, trying to find answers instead of squealing with disgust. It was more than I could ask for, these thoughtful reflections! I answered the questions to the best of my ability.

As we worked I told them I had a worm farm in my living room. A couple girls made gagging sounds, but several other kids looked at me with astonishment. "A worm farm? Wow!" I have no idea what they may have imagined a worm farm to look like--perhaps in their minds it was complete with a little red barn and a field of mini-hay--but I promised to bring in a photo to show them. I told them how the worms ate up some of my garbage and gave me beautiful garden 'vitamins' in return. They were quiet, but I could tell they didn't quite believe me--BUT, I'd gotten their attention. That first crucial step in learning something new; undivided attention.

Recess ended. We lined up. The worm rescue was abandoned, but not before we'd saved many of the doomed creatures. I was satisfied and rejuvenated. Perhaps this new job has challenged me to the point of breaking, and perhaps my heart shattered a little at leaving behind my daycare and my constant access to home and garden--but a piece of the old me resurfaced during this recess. The nature lover and garden addict in me reveled at the way the kids soaked up the short lesson on worms, and I gleefully planned for the books I'd bring in for the kids to read during silent reading, the photos of my worm farm I'd share. For a moment, I was able to reach into kids' innate nature-loving little minds, like I'd been able to at home for so many years with my daycare kids.

I know I will eventually teach in my own classroom--hopefully soon. Getting back into the public school system seemed like jumping into an icy lake at first, compared to the comfortable warm pond I was used to at home. I'm becoming more accustomed to this different, but equally powerful job, day by day. I love these kids like mad, ALL of them, even those who make teaching extremely difficult. I know that I am helping many of them reach academic success. I also know I have the power to pass along some deeper life lessons about our world along the way. The future classroom in my mind is one that is filled with questions, wonder, and connections--I can hardly wait. For now, I can relish my role as that kinda-weird-assistant who likes to talk about nature and plants and worms.

I followed the rest of the kids inside, gave a final glance to the gloomy afternoon and the pink-mottled blacktop, and took a deep breath. 'Let me get through the rest of this day', I pleaded in my mind, and then I silently thanked the worms for coming out to remind me of who I am, deep inside.

Update: 3/1/16

Not even a week later, we had another worm-on-the-blacktop recess. I waited to see what would happen. Within minutes, a group of kids had come toward me, perhaps wanting to see what I'd do. I didn't say a word...and I didn't need to. I listened as students began to talk to each other about worms and what they do, and to please don't squish them! When they instructed each other to be careful and when they started to rescue some of the big, healthy worms, I remained quiet but pitched in to help. My silent smile reached all the way into my heart.

DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affiliate links. I'm eligible to receive a small commission whenever a product is purchased through these links. Click Here for my full disclosure!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Merging of Dreams: Beware the Tears

Caution: I analyze everything to death. Nothing is simple. I abhor change, though in time I usually accept it. Things that would be mere hiccups to most people--like a job change--disrupt my entire life and make me question the reason for my very existence. You've been warned. Read on if you've ever felt overwhelmed by change in your life--my reluctance and fears about change may make you feel like a superstar in comparison!

So Life Changed a Little Bit Around Here

I usually don't digress on this blog, or at least,

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Seeds We Saved in 2015

Each year I try to learn a little bit more about seed saving. It appeals to the practical (aka cheap) side of me (those seed packets really add up!) and to the inquisitive side of me (you mean, that's how a plant makes seed?).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hooked on this Heirloom: Sanditas

These adorable little cucumbers are becoming wildly popular with gardeners, and for very good reason!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Today in The Garden- Neglect

I was warned that it would happen. Once I started working outside the house, my garden would suffer. The blog would suffer. I just wouldn't have the time to deal with these 'hobbies' anymore.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Crisp Onion & Zucchini Pizza

Got pesto? Got zucchini and onions? Try them all together on a pizza and be ready to fall in love!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Food Forest Update; Quiet Steady Growth

From the street, it's becoming obvious that this is no longer
a typical urban empty lot.

If you didn't see my original post about the Food Forest, click here to see how I got to be present at its 'birth'. What was once just a simple empty lot has begun a transformation beyond my wildest dreams...and it will only get more lush and beautiful as the perennial plants and trees reach maturity.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Today in The Garden- Six Blossoms

Early in the morning, there was a huge yellow blossom on the Jack-Be-Little pumpkin plant--by afternoon it had closed in on itself and revealed another blossom underneath it. Throughout the day we looked closely and found a few other flowering surprises.

There is something indescribably exciting about spotting those first blossoms. While the whole garden is hard at work, growing and greening in all the rain, these 6 are the star of the show for today...


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lamb's Quarters Poppers

I'll never forget how excited I was to discover Lamb's Quarters.
Discovering that a 'weed' is edible is always a thrill!

Other names for this tender and delicious plant: goosefoot, fat hen, and smooth pigweed.

Most people consider it an invasive weed, but once I found some for myself and had a taste, I was glad to have it in my garden. Click here to see why this 'weed' is a treasure!

While I recommend keeping it in check--because it can be very invasive--I am here to tell you to enjoy this tasty and nutritious green. It's one of the first harvests of the year for me, because here in zone 6 it shows up around mid-March and can start being eaten by April. Fresh greens that are free, easy and tasty--sounds great to me!

If you can't eat your harvest right away: Chop up the leaves and small stems, removing the largest stem pieces. The large pieces taste like asparagus to me and are great for a crunchy snack, but in my experience don't cook well. You can store the chopped lamb's quarters in the fridge for a few days. Use them up in salads, eggs or frittatas, cooked into rice or quinoa, in a hummus melt, or in the recipe below for poppers!

The kids go nuts if you call them "pizza poppers" and serve with ketchup or pizza sauce
 (this simple pizza sauce is our favorite).
I have to fight to get a share once the poppers hit the table.

I've been making versions of this recipe for years, usually with spinach. Lamb's quarters is the perfect substitute, especially if you find yourself lacking spinach. Try using a couple cup-fulls of both if you want.

Lamb's Quarters Poppers            Print Here
(or spinach, or kale, or any green you can get your hands on!)

1 t. olive or coconut oil
1/2 c. minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced (or 1 t. dried garlic if you are feeling lazy)
4-6 c. chopped lamb's quarters leaves and small stems
3 c. cooked rice (medium or short grain is best, I like this kind right here)
1 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
salt and pepper
2 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. Saute onion and garlic in the oil over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add lamb's quarters (or spinach, or a combination of both) and cook until wilted. Lamb's quarters cooks a little differently than other greens--it tends to stick together and dry out. If needed, add up to 1/4 c. water, a tablespoon at a time, to prevent too much drying out. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

3. Mix the rice, cheeses, spices and eggs in a large mixing bowl. I have made this with long-grain rice a few times, and once it bakes, the poppers hold together fine--however making the balls is tricky because long-grain rice doesn't have a lot of starch to help it stick. I recommend using medium or short grain rice because it naturally sticks together much better. This brand(affiliate) has everything I want--short grain, brown, and organic. I can find it at most of my local grocery stores.

 4. Add cooked onions/greens mix to the bowl and stir to combine thoroughly. Form into golf-ball sized balls (I use this cookie scoop) and place on an oiled baking sheet. You can really crowd them together so they all fit on one sheet.

5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until browned to your liking. The bottoms of the poppers will be crispy and golden brown. Use a thin metal spatula to remove the poppers (if you don't have one, you may want to use parchment paper instead).

6. Enjoy! Be careful--they are highly addictive.

DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affiliate links. I'm eligible to receive a small commission whenever a product is purchased through these links. Click Here for my full disclosure!