Fat Hen and Family
I took on an allotment last year, and one of the prevalent weeds is “Fat Hen” Chenopodium alba. Knowing that it’s giant relative Quinoa is used for “pseudograins”, I wondered if the seeds of fat hen were edible, but last year couldn’t find this out and when I asked the question on a forum, was warned off from trying them.
If only I’d known I had the answer at home already in Jekka McVikka’s Herb book. It is edible. So this year I decided to try both the young leaves and, later on, try harvesting the seed. I also grew its cousin “Tree Spinach” which is very similar but has leaves which are pink when young.
The first startling discovery was that fat hen leaves are actually nicer than spinach. I had to overcome that instinctive suspicion of new foods, but once that forkful hit my mouth, I was delighted and wondered why we don’t grow it instead of spinach. I think the answer is that it’s fiddly to pick and goes off quickly.
I left a few plants and they have gone to seed. The seed is spherical and black, but enclosed in a coat which on some looks like tiny beetroot seed (they are in the same family). On others it’s easier to rub the coat off. The flowering tips can be eaten like asparagus, and I did include one or two in a stir fry and they were palatable, but I had so much else to eat I neglected these as a food source.
I saved some seed in a cloth bag (made from an old pair of trousers) and dried the seed off before rubbing it between my fingers and winnowing it. What a chore, and, as this was at home, I fear I might find rather a lot of seedlings next year. No matter; caught in time it makes a good green manure. However, as a means of separating the seeds from the chaff, it was unsatisfactory because it was time consuming.
James Wong on quinoa says that quinoa has saponins coating the seed which need to be removed before consumption. He whizzes his quinoa heads in a food blender, which does the job of washing the seed and bashing it out of its coat. So I whizzed some different fat hen seeds up with the stick blender.
The water frothed up, so I think there are saponins in the fat hen, too, which I wouldn’t want to eat too much of. The foam held many of the seeds in suspension, so I passed it through a sieve. Alas, the sieve holes were large enough to pass the seed through, so I had to find a finer sieve. But once washed, the seeds were far less foamy. I think the thing to do for this “water winnowing” is to whizz the seed clusters up then wash the seeds through a cloth. This does not get rid of the “chaff” though, which might be tolerable with freshly harvested seeds for soup, but not for dried – perhaps. So I left the seeds soaking to see if the good seeds would sink.
They did, and they didn’t. I decided the ones which didn’t might be duff, so tipped them away. After a lot of faffing abut and rinsing and discarding, I was left with a teaspoonful or so of seeds, and still some chaff. I boiled them for 10 minutes + then turned the heat out and let them sit for a while. They were still crunchy. So I cooked them up some more. Still crunchy. I’m beginning to think they’re not worth harvesting, except as seeds for next year. And then only the giant spinach, so I can eat the leaves. The fat hen will come back of its own accord, of that I am sure.
I think the basket of seeds will go in the green bin, but I will save the ones I harvested the other day. They might be OK used like poppy seeds on bread – except that I grew bone fide poppy seed for that. If I were really hungry I might consider it, might add them to soups etc as recommended, but I have beans and other things to give me carbs and protein from the allotment, and foraged nuts are far more satisfactory.
I have the feeling I shall find seedlings everywhere.