Orache, the Salty Green
The kids in my foraging classes call it the potato chip plant, which gives you a clue about the flavor of orache (Atriplex spp.). Like its cousin lamb’s quarter, orache is a mild tender green. The twist is that this plant, which favors growing in saline soil, tastes noticeably salty.
I’ve read accounts of orache (also spelled orach) possessing a slightly bitter flavor in other places, but here along the Front Range, it is reliably sweet and delicious. I will admit that I’ve yet to get this plant keyed out. I’ve narrowed it down to 2-3 species and will have to wait until it flowers to properly crack its identity. Orache is one of the first plants to grow strongly after it emerges in spring, preceding lamb’s quarter appearance by more than a month, and it will give some tender leaves all the way to the frost. It favors alkaline soil, and can be found along ditches and in fields. If you have access to orache, you can make it a workhorse potherb in your kitchen.
|Lamb’s quarter leaf|
It took me a while to be able to tell the difference between orache and lamb’s quarter at a glance. Adding to the confusion, the leaves of both plants can be quite variable. My buddy Wild Food Girl taught me the trick to differentiating the two plants. In general, the base of orache leaves are either straight across, or slightly turned down at the corners like an arrowhead. Those of lamb’s quarter, also known as goosefoot, turn up, leaving them looking more like a footprint of a goose.
You may enjoy eating orache leaves raw, or in a salad. They are quite nice with a bit of goat cheese and a dab of jam rolled up inside. When cooking with orache, think of all the places where you would normally use spinach, and substitute it into your recipe. The other day, I saw a patch of orache growing atop a septic system with leaves larger than my hands (I didn’t pick any to eat). Usually, the leaves are small enough that they can be cooked whole, or only roughly chopped. You may need to cut back on the salt in the recipe, to account for the salinity of orache. It’s about like the difference between salted and unsalted butter.
Though you could get as fancy as you please with orache recipes, you’d be hard pressed to make a finer dish than orache cooked in ghee. Simply heat a spoonful of ghee in a skillet over medium. When the pan feels hot, add a big bunch of orache leaves, and stir them around until they look wilted and deep green. You can add a touch of pepper or herbs if you please, but you won’t need salt. Cooked orache has the delicate saltiness of ocean water all by itself.
If you’re up for a little adventure, collect a large amount of orache, dry it, then burn the leaves. The ash that remains can be used as a salt substitute. I tried this last year, but didn’t do it in a great enough quantity to be of much use.
If you’d like to learn more about this salty little plant, including an account of eating other species of the Atriplex genus, you can purchase the May 2014 volume of Wild Food Girl’s Wild Edible Notebook for only $2.