Researcher: Jason Ball
Start date: July 2014
End date: December 2014
We experimented with different parts of Chenopodium album, also known as goosefoot, lamb's quarters, or fat hen. Some kombucha and beer trials were particularly successful. Recipes below.
On a visit to a farm on the outskirts of Copenhagen last summer, I had what some may refer to as a ‘moment of clarity’.
The name of the farm is Pometet. The name comes from ‘Pometum’, a collection of varieties of fruit trees and bushes, which itself derives from the Latin word ‘pomum’, meaning ‘fruit on trees’. As an extension of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Copenhagen University, the farm also serves as part of the Nordic Gene Bank, which (among other things) aims to preserve Danish heirloom varieties of fruit. The work that is being done on this farm is extremely important for the cultural preservation of heirloom varieties of fruit in Denmark, as well as the continuation of Scandinavian heritage and tradition.
It is also worth mentioning that the fruit on this farm is absolutely brilliant. We went to harvest some currants for a project we were working on. As I was walking down, through rows of scrumptious apples, plums, and berries, I couldn’t help but notice a few piles of pulled weeds off to the side. Of course I was primarily concerned with eating handfuls of plums – and stuffing all the fruit I could into the pockets of my jeans – but my mind wondered: “What are these weeds?" I thought it was so interesting that these plants were growing quite close to one another, but their fates couldn’t be more different. The currants were coming back to the lab, and the comfort of a cozy botrytis chamber (to be made into beer). The ‘weeds’, on the other hand, were headed for the compost bin on the farm (similarly cozy I’m sure, but probably less fun than being inoculated with a fungus). The weeds may not have been as aesthetically pleasing as the other fruits, but I thought they deserved better. So, I brought them back to the lab.
The ‘weeds’ are Chenopodium album.
C. album (family: Chenopodiaceae) is an annual shrub that grows wild in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. It is commonly known as goosefoot, fat hen, lambs’ quarters or pigweed, among others. The plant is used in folk medicine in different parts of the world as a diuretic, laxative, sedative, hepato-protective and antiparasitic. The leaves possess anthelmentic, antiphlogistic, antirheumatic, mildly laxative and odontalgic properties, applied as a wash or poultice to bug bites, sunstroke, rheumatic joints and swollen feets (Kokanova-Nedialkova et al., 2009). Seeds of fat hen and other Chenopodium species are similar to, but smaller than those of their cultivated South American cousin quinoa. Fat hen seeds were eaten in Europe until at least the time of the Vikings, but wild species of this family are more usually gathered these days for their edible leaves (Irving, 2009). Also, according to Irving (2009), leaves, whole young plants, or tender tops of older plants are good in salads or cooked, in place of spinach or other greens. More recently, Irving has argued for further investigation into the nutritional and culinary potential of this widespread plant (Münke et al. 2015).
While it’s great to eat locally foraged food, it is also important (especially when working with wild plants) to consider food safety. With the case of C. album, the leaves, stems and roots are generally edible, but there are also some important considerations. Many of the species in this genus contain saponins, though usually in quantities too small to do any harm. Although toxic, saponins are poorly absorbed by the body and most pass straight through without any problem. They are also broken down to a large extent in the cooking process (Fern, 2014). C. album can also contain oxalic acid, a common component of plants in the spinach family. In humans, ingested oxalic acid has an oral LDLo (lowest published lethal dose) of 600 mg/kg (OA Material Safety Data Sheet, 2014). Yadav and Sehgal (2003) report that blanching and cooking resulted in significant improvement of iron availability in both types of leaves. Blanching and cooking also resulted in a significant reduction in oxalic acid content, while blanching alone significantly reduced phytic acid and polyphenol contents.
In nitrogen-rich soils, the plants can also concentrate hydrogen cyanide (Duke and Ayensu, 1985). As mentioned in an earlier post, cyanide is a strongly toxic compound that is commonly found in nature, as well as in plants that are considered ‘safe to eat’. Again, as is the case with oxalic acid and certain other toxic compounds, toxicity is largely a function of dose, and consumption of these compounds in small quantities is often safe. Furthermore, cyanide in particular has a boiling point of 25.7°C, which means that even a little heat would vapourise the toxin and make the product safer (de Valicourt, 2013a).
Farmers tend to pull this plant from their fields and they are not remiss in their actions. According to Roy et al., (2006), rainfall can create aqueous extracts of toxic compounds from certain weeds, which may damage the germination and growth rate of crops. The direct or indirect effect of one plant to nearby plants through the release of chemical substances or toxic compounds is known as allelopathy and is postulated to be one mechanism by which weeds interfere in crop growth and also the germination of seeds (Ming, 1999; Jha & Dhakal, 1990; Duke, 1986). One such plant is Clove root (Geum urbanum); another is C. album. Roy et al., (2006) for example, concluded that it is better to suggest the farmer remove C. album rapidly during germination of jute and wheat seeds.
This information only gave us further motivation to come up with a delicious culinary use.
We initially planned to use this plant to develop a coffee or tea analogue. For a variety of preparations, I separated the plant into four component parts: seeds, leaves, stems, and roots.
Initially, I tried a few pre-treatments on the seeds and leaves, such as: lacto-fermenting, oxidizing, blanching, dehydrating, and crushing. With each sample, there was little variability in the sensory properties of the final beverages produced. An overwhelming majority of samples tasted like weeds. Which helps to describe the ‘vegetal’ and ‘grassy’ sensory properties, as far as a sensory lexicon is concerned. However, from a qualitative standpoint, it is not a positive attribute. We are keen to explore all possibilities, but we also want things to taste delicious. These were not quite there.
But, we have ovens, so in times of need, we can always seek assistance from the Maillard reaction.
We roasted some seeds as a starting point (200˚C, 20 minutes). The aroma prior to the 20-minute mark was perceived as generally ‘underdeveloped’ – still grassy, hay-like. Similar to a weed, albeit slightly toasted. After 20 minutes, we started to develop some aromatic compounds that are commonly associated with the Maillard reaction: ‘chocolate’, ‘toast’, ‘hazelnut’, ‘smoked hay’, ‘toasted wood’, and ‘campfire’ aromas. The aromas indicated that we were headed in the right direction. At this point the challenge became figuring out how to translate these characteristics into a finished product.
Using commonly accepted tea ratios (1:100 w/w), we brewed some simple tea samples. The results, again, were underwhelming. The beautiful aromas weren’t translating to the finished beverage. The taste was just underdeveloped, and noticeably bitter as well. Something had to change.
Taking a small break from the seeds and leaves, we started to work with the stems. Following the same roasting protocols, we roasted the stems and received some similarly positive results. The stems were smoky, toasty, nutty, and coffee-like. We prepared a similar tea beverage to earlier samples, but this time we sweetened the mixture with 10% (by weight) of sugar, and added a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts). For additional information on SCOBY functionality and kombucha in general, refer to our previous blog post entitled ‘Kombucha: a tasty symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast’ (Pederson, 2013).
The resulting kombucha beverage is dependent on the sweetening substrate and the initial ‘tea flavouring’, which in this case are sucrose and C. album respectively. The results of this particular batch were interesting. Through a series of chemical reactions (explained in the aforementioned post), this beverage developed great complexity. Initial analytical results indicate that by day 11 of fermentation at ambient temperature (21 ± 2°C), the beverage had a pH of 3.4, with a brix of 9°. The sugar content and pH are directly correlated, and will change as more sugar is converted into lactic and acetic acid. By day 18 the pH had dropped to 2.8, and brix 8°. The kombucha was pretty tasty. It displayed sensory properties reminiscent of stone fruit (plum, cherry) while still retaining vegetal notes. We found it to be quite pleasant.
Roasted Chenopodium album stem 30g
Kombucha mother 24.5g
1. Roast C. album stems (200˚C 15mins).
2. Cool down.
3. Grind in spice grinder.
4. Measure sugar and stems, place in a large container.
5. Bring water to 100C.
6. Pour over stem/sugar mixture.
7. Steep (covered) for 5 minutes.
8. Cool to room temperature (24˚C).
9. Strain out the C. album. Discard.
10. Add the kombucha mother, cover with muslin and secure. Ferment at room temperature (20-25˚C) for 7-11 days.
Perhaps it’s my stubborn nature. Perhaps it’s my inherent desire to see the good in things. Maybe it’s just sheer curiosity. Whatever the case, I had to find a use for these beautiful little seeds. So I reoriented my focus to beer. If the fruits and berries from Pometet could be used for that purpose, then I might find a similar solution using these seeds. The bitterness that we were perceiving in the original tea samples led me to think that Chenopodium seeds and leaves might make a nice substitute for hops. Hops are the flowering buds of the plant Humulus lupulus, generally used to add flavour and bitterness to beer, although we have experimented with other uses. For more details, refer to our post titled ‘Hop into it’ (de Valicourt, 2013b). In fact, prior to hop cultivation, a mixture of other herbs called ‘gruit’ was used to flavour and add bitterness to beer (MacGovern et al. 2013). For all these reasons it seemed like a good idea to try.
Chemical data on the health aspects of C. album further compels its use. Liu et al. (2002) reported the fatty acid content in C. album to be relatively high, stating (in a comparative analysis between nine plants) that both total fatty acid and Alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) contents were higher in Amaranthus viridis, Atriplex nummularia, Chenopodium album, Portulaca oleracea and Taraxacum officinale than in the other species or varieties. Research on plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids has great relevance, due to their important role in maintaining cardiovascular health and in modulating human metabolism and development (Simopoulos et al., 1995; Guil and Rodriguez, 1999; Grusak and DellaPenna, 1999). Alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), found most abundantly in plant tissues, is an essential omega 3 fatty acid (FA) because it cannot be synthesized by humans and has to be ingested from foods (Liu et al., 2002). Furthermore, polyphenols and glycosides present in ethanol extraction of C. album are reported to have excellent antioxidant potential (Kumar et al., 2008). Chenoalbuside, a glycoside found in alcoholic extraction of C. album, has also been reported to exhibit antioxidant potential (Sarker, 2005).
This information, some random ideas, and a good amount of leftover malt and grains provided inspiration for our C. album beer. The C. album was foraged in Hellerup (an upscale neighbourhood just north of Copenhagen), so, we have decided to call this beer ‘Uptown Cheno’.
Malted barley 500g
Rye (soaked & dried) 67g
Extra light malt extract 167g
Light malt extract 42g
Medium malt powder 500g
Malt syrup 600g
Chenopodium album seeds 60g
Chenopodium album seeds 260g
White Labs Flemish Ale Yeast 35ml
Superbag / muslin
20 gallon bucket w/ airlock
Fine mesh strainer
Bottles (for bottling)
1. Thoroughly sanitize all equipment you will use.
2. Place barley and rye in a super bag (or muslin pouch).
3. Add first amount of water (7570g) to stock pot, and add superbag of grains.
4. Turn on heat to high power.
5. Just before the water boils, remove the grains and discard.
6. Add the malt syrup, malt extract, malt powder, and the first amount of C. album seeds (60g).
7. Boil mixture for 55 minutes.
8. Add the second amount of C. album seeds (260g), and boil for 5 minutes longer.
9. Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve.
10. Add the second amount of water (11355g) and cool to 24C°.
11. At this point, pitch the yeast into the mixture and stir (using a sanitized spatula).
12. Take a gravity reading.
13. Add the lid and release valve, and store in a dark place approx 20-24°C.
14. After activity slows down (less CO2 being released), take a gravity reading. When you get the same reading two days in a row, it's time to bottle the beer.
15. Strain the beer through a fine mesh strainer.
16. Boil the sugar with the water, and cool to room temperature (20°C). Add the sugar mixture to the beer, stir, and bottle in sanitized bottles.
For another batch, we added 415g roasted (20mins, 200˚C) C. album seeds after the primary fermentation (prior to bottling), and let infuse for 14 days. That beer we named ‘Charred Cheno’.
The beer is quite unusual. It’s dark, sour, and very crisp. A few of us noted a similarity in mouthfeel to champagne – light, with a clean finish. A sour taste up front rounds out to a slight maltiness in the finish. It is interesting, and tasty. In addition, it was made using a product that was otherwise going into the compost pile, which I think is nice.
These discoveries have given us some insight into our curiosity about Chenopodium album. They have not provided us with very many conclusions. In general, after much work and experimentation, we often find that each project opens doors for new and exciting opportunities. This one is no different. At the very least, a tangled mess of weeds became a catalyst for changing the way we look at our surroundings.
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