The goosefoot family of plants, the chenopodiaceae, is one we’re all pretty familiar with even if we don’t know its longish name. It includes spinach, beets, and chard, but also a host of edible wild (and cultivated) plants collectively known as “quelites”. Among them are lambs quarters, magentaspreen, orach, pigweed, and the cultivar, Good King Henry. Quinoa and huanzontle also reside here, as do a number of wild desert plants, like Four Wing Saltbush. All have masses of small edible seeds. Some, like huanzontle, are eaten while they’re still in their flower form. Others, like quinoa, are eaten once the seeds have formed and dried. Some of these are amaranths which used to be botanically closer but are still pretty similar in some respects, especially taste. Below is a bouquet of amaranths from a farmers market in Arlington, MA.
One botany book of mine succinctly sums up the goosefoots as a group of rank and weedy plants, which some clearly are. Epazote, the only herb in the family, certainly could be described that way, as can a number of the wild goosefoots that grow around my neighborhood. When I note the summer pollen index in the morning paper, much of it is due to the “chenopods”, the wild weedy ones just going to flower in June
But why goosefoot? Because the leaves are supposedly the shape of a goose’s foot. And they are, sort of. And how do I know? While visiting a u-pick berry farm in the Cuyahoga National Park, a small flock of geese had gathered behind a fence. As my friend and I approached their enclosure they ran towards us, their long necks outstretched, hissing with unbridled menace because while we were proper visitors to the farm, in their eyes we were also likely to be thieves. I asked the farmer if he’d be willing to pick up a goose and show me its foot so I could see its shape. He did so, thrusting a big, orange leathery-looking claw-like appendage in my face. It was a powerful looking foot, but its shape was both broader and simpler than I had expected. It didn’t match up exactly with the shape of the leaves in this family, although it did roughly enough. This webbed foot was rather broad and many goosefoot leaves like spinach and chard, are narrow. Maybe some geese have narrower feet? Still, it is possible to see the resemblance, especially when you think of other leaves in other families that have absolutely no similarity, like artichokes and salsify, two members of the daisy family.
Aside from the one herb, the seeds and the beetroot, the edible parts of this family consist mostly of leafy greens (also reds purples, and magentas), tender leaves that are edible raw when young, cooked when older, and highly nutritious at any stage. There are not nearly as many edibles as in other families, like the cruciferous (cabbage) family or the solanaceae (tomatoes, potaotes, eggplant), but they are all easy to prepare, not difficult to grown, and they pair well with one another in all sorts of ways. The greens of these various plants are essentially interchangeable and taste very much the same, the wild ones being somewhat stronger.
Among them, I’m partial to chard. It grows pretty much easily everywhere. It yields edible stalks as well as extremely handsome leaves. Just the appearance those thick leaves with their bubbled surfaces, not to mention the translucent golden, rose and purple stems of the rainbow variety, make my mouth water, even though chard isn’t as exciting as, say, mustard greens or broccoli raab. It is, however, ever reliable, useful, and can be prepared in all sorts of ways. Just steaming or braising the leaves until they’re tender, then turning them in some good olive oil, sea salt and pepper flakes is a simple act that goes far in the taste department. Chard is always compatible with lentils (in a soup) and potatoes (added to boiled ones or a mash.) My favorite frittata, the Provencale trouchia, is based on slowly cooked chard and onions with basil. Another dish I never tired of is chard cooked leisurely in its own moisture with a few tablespoons of rice and a lot of cilantro, cumin and garlic. You don’t end up with a lot, but the few bites you get are intensely satisfying. Chard can also serve as somewhat neutral but bulk-supplying element when cooked in a soup with stronger tasting but less substantial greens, such as sorrel, nettles, and lovage. It can stuff a crepe or nestle into a lasagna. The combination of eggplant and chard is oddly meaty. The leaves can also be used to harbor fillings. And on and on.
All in all chard is an extremely useful green that can be led in this and that direction depending on its herb or spice companions. And you know what else you can do with it? You can put the leaves in a vase and put them on the table to admire for a day, then cook it. Here’s a recipe from my work in progress, “Vegetable Literacy”.
Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes with Micro Greens Makes 12 3-inch cakes
These can serve as a tidy little nibble for a pass-around, made slightly larger for a first course, or large still for a vegetable main course.
Enough chard to make 10 to 12 cups trimmed leaves
2 pinches saffron threads
1 cup white whole -wheat pastry flour or spelt flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 farm eggs
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons olive oil or ghee
Thick yogurt or sour cream and micro greens
Wash the leaves and cook them in a covered pot until they are wilted and tender but not overcooked, so keep an eye on them and taste them frequently once they’ve wilted. When done, put the greens in a colander and set them aside to cool and drain.
Cover the saffron threads with 2 tablespoons boiling water and set aside.
In one bowl, mix the flour with the salt and baking powder. In another bowl, mix the ricotta, cheese, eggs and milk together. Add the oil, butter and steeped saffron threads, then whisk in the flour mixture.
Returning to the greens, squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop them finely and stir them into the batter.
Heat a pan with olive oil, ghee or butter. Drop batter onto the pan, making small or larger cakes as you wish, and cook over medium-low heat. The batter is quite thick and it will not behave exactly like a pancake. You need to give it plenty of time in the pan and it will still be very moist. Cook over moderate heat until golden on the bottom, then turn the cakes once, resisting any urge to pat them down, and cook until the second side is also well-colored. Serve each with a spoonful of sour cream and a garnish of micro greens.