The Good, the Bad, and the Stinking: The Extended Family of Goosefoot
Swiss chard (rainbow-colored stalks and hardy leaves); Bull's Blood beets (dark-red stripes and purple greens); Chioggia beets (striped beets with a sweet flavor and edible leaves); tyee spinach (sweet, buttery greens); red orach (rainbow colored leaves); quinoa (protein-rich with application similar to rice or couscous); and epazote (a Mexican mainstay, with a powerful flavor somewhat similar to cilantro)
Depends on the variety, but most are year-round
Nugent will present at the International Chefs Congress on October 1, 2012, talking about the art of layering flavors and textures in a composed dish.
Chef Chris Nugent could have called his new, impressive Chicago restaurant Chenopodium. But that somehow doesn't have the same ring to it as Goosefoot, the common name for the massive and eclectic chenopodium plant family that includes Swiss chard, Bull's Blood beet greens, Good King Henry shoots, and quinoa.
"Over the years I've grown lots of things for work, and I came across this big plant family through the research of seeds," Nugent says. "I thought it was a neat name. When we opened, we were a farm-to-market restaurant, so it tied into our theme. It's a nice icebreaker: a little goofy and not self-conscious."
The name is also a testament to Nugent's varied menu, since goosefoot is an expansive family of plants. Virtually all of the 150-plus varieties of goosefoot plants taste different from one another; the herbaceous flavor of epazote couldn't be further than the slightly bitter bite of Swiss chard. In fact, apart from the genetic similarity and the occasional ribbed leaf (that looks like, you guessed it, a goose's foot), there's no common thread linking the plants.
"Goosefoot has some culinary treasures," says Nugent, whose eight-course tasting menu often includes several goosefoot varieties (but, by design, doesn't pigeonhole itself by slavishly trying to use one of these plants in every dish). As Nugent discovered, goosefoot's not about quantity, but quality, and versatility. In his Angus Beef, Heirloom Carrots, Goosefoot, Cumin, and Shallot Jus, Nugent incorporates the goosefoot into a ragout with mushrooms. But he's also used it raw in other dishes and has used Bull's Blood beet greens for one of his amuse bouches, a sort of "hidden" addition of goosefoot. "It's neat to see if the guests know that beets are [included in the] goosefoot family with their first course," he says.
Not that he's trying to introduce diners to every member of the goosefoot clan. The family contains a few rock star cousins, like the easily foraged lamb's quarters, but also some decidedly nasty and revolting uncles. The lovely named stinking orach, for example, is known to grow near garbage and is described thusly by an online herb enthusiast: "invested with a greasy mealiness, which, when touched, exhales a very odious and enduring smell like that of stale salt fish, this being particularly attractive to dogs, though swine refuse the plant."
Goosefoot isn't just a broad category of plant. It's both a New World and Old World phenomenon. Native Americans (North and South) ate versions of chenopodium for stomach aches, to reduce fever, and to treat bruises. Lamb's quarters actually predates corn as a crop in North America. Others, such as Good King Henry (named supposedly because the plant was used to treat the old tyrant's gouty legs) and oak-leaved goosefoot also made their way from Europe to the Americas and are now considered invasive species.
Fortunately, for eco-balance anyway, chefs like Nugent are hosting mini goosefoot family reunions, one sophisticated tasting menu at a time.