Fat Hen – Flocking to a field near you

A great edible plant to track down at the moment (June – September) is Fat Hen. It is also known by many names including Lambs Quarters, White Goosefoot, Common Goosefoot, Dirty Dick, Frost Blite, Dung Weed, Mutton Tops and Pigweed. It is a summer plant found on disturbed and cultivated areas such as arable fields, vegetable gardens / allotments and manure heaps. For those that don’t welcome its presence, it is a troublesome annual weed, each plant producing up to 20,000 seeds which can last in the soil for many years. It is common in most of Britain except mountainous areas.

Fat Hen with its huge numbers of seeds. Here growing in the margin of an arable field.
Fat Hen with its huge numbers tiny white flowers. Here it is growing in the margin of an arable field.

Fat Hen is a member of the Goosefoot genus. Many other members are edible including the salt-tolerant Oraches found on shingle beaches.

Fat Hen has been eaten as a vegetable since Stone Age times. Its seeds made up part of the last meal of Tollund Man, a bog body dating from this period found in Tollund in Denmark. It remained popular until the 16th century when spinach and cabbage replaced it in our diets. One relative, Good King Henry, was a popular garden vegetable for hundreds of years and the seeds are still sold today though is less popular than in the past. A “trendy” relative is Chenopodium quinoa that grows in South America. It’s seeds are the source of Quinoa. Today, Fat Hen is still cultivated as a food crop in some countries including India.

 

Fat Hen Identification

Fat Hen, and other members of the Chenopodium family are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They are very variable and can hybridise!

Fat Hen is an erect, annual, bushy herb often reaching a height of a metre or more. It usually has striped stems and has dense clusters of tiny green flowers.

Leaves

They are grey green ovate or triangular leaves which are paler underneath. They are 20-60 mm long and 5-30 mm wide with a pointed tip. Bigger leaves are usually lobed or toothed. All are mealy (covered with meal (a powdery coating)).

Smell / Taste

Fat Hen smells (faintly of) and tastes a bit like cabbage.

 

Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.
Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.

The leaves of the toxic Black Nightshade do look rather like those of Fat Hen. The flowers are however, very different, with those of Black Nightshade being like a white version of tomato or potato flowers – in the same family!

 

Fat Hen Risks

If you are gathering Fat Hen from a farmer’s field, garden or allotment, do check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.

Sprayed Fat Hen - it just doesn't look vibrant and good to eat.
Sprayed Fat Hen – it just doesn’t look vibrant and good to eat.

Fat Hen can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates though cases of poisoning are rare.

Some members of this genus contain saponins (they form a lather when combined with water), however:

  • Quantities are usually too small for any harm.
  • Most are not absorbed and pass without any problem.
  • They are also largely broken down during cooking.

Like many foods (Sorrel, Sea Beet and lots of cultivated plants like Sprouts and Parsley), they also contain some oxalic acid. Cooking will reduce the levels of this, but people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should be aware that large quantities of Oxalic acid can aggravate their condition.

 

Fat Hen Uses

Fat Hen "tops" picked for soup.
Fat Hen “tops” picked for soup.

“Tops” (flower spikes, younger stems and leaves)

They can be the main ingredient for a soup, made as Nettle or Leek and Potato soups. In my opinion the flavour is like Cauliflower soup. I’ve served it to many people and it goes down well. If you’ve left the Fat Hen to grow a bit big, pass the cooked, blended soup through a sieve to catch any fibrous bits.

Making Fat Hen Soup
Making Fat Hen Soup

Young Shoots / Flower Spikes

The young shoots (less than 20 cm) and unopened flower spikes can be prepared and eaten like Asparagus shoots. If you leave them to get too big they may be a bit woody. Simmer until tender (up to 10 minutes), drain and serving with a little butter.

The young shoots / flower spikes could also go into a stir-fry.

 

Leaves

The leaves can be eaten raw but only in in small quantities, see the notes above on risks.

They can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked like Spinach or used in place of Spinach in any recipe, for example:

  • Tarts / Quiches / Frittata
  • Lasagne
  • Curries (e.g. Sag Aloo or a Chickpea, Tomato and Spinach Curry),
  • Mushroom and Spinach Risotto etc.

One recipe that specifically calls for Fat Hen is Fat Hen Pesto Bake. I make this regularly in the season and thoroughly enjoy it. Vegetarian / vegan / nut-free versions can be made by altering the ingredients.

Fat Hen Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)
Fat Hen Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)

Seeds

Fat Hen plants each produces tens of thousands of nutritious, but small and fiddly seeds. The close relative Quinoa is grown for its seeds. Fat Hen seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make bread and cakes. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight and then rinsed to remove any saponins.