Thursday, September 19, 2013

What the heck is that? Purslane

One of the fun things you can do in the Union Square Greenmarket is snoop in chef’s shopping carts. Today I snooped in this cart. Sure enough - this seems like the norm this time of year - there was some purslane on top.

Let's go for the close-up:

Purslane is a chef’s darling, but to many folks it’s a weed. As horticulturalist Sandra Mason  writes, "Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is probably in your garden right now, but not because you invited it to dinner."

Once you know what to look for, you'll find it, as I did, in a green patch around an urban traffic light and in a mall parking lot.

And don't think these purslane patches aren't here to stay! Purslane has made its way all over the world - not surprising, given purslane's legendary hardiness. As Mason notes,

Seeds of purslane have been known to stay viable for 40 years in the soil. You may find that fact either depressing or exciting... Purslane grows just about anywhere from fertile garden soil to the poorest arid soils. A rock driveway is nirvana to purslane... Again depressing or exciting. Running a tiller through purslane is called purslane multiplication.

I first encountered purslane as a desirable vegetable in Turkey, where it is prized in a variety of dishes - stews meze appetizers, and salads. In New York, I frequently see it sold in the East Harlem vegetable stalls that cater to Mexican shoppers. And it's sold at many farmers' markets, where it is snapped up by chefs and a small but cultish following of laypeople. (And, occasionally, curious shoppers who interact with both groups.) This stand at a farmers' market is hoping to entice the uninitiated. 

So what's purslane's appeal? Of course, if you have a lot of it growing in your garden, by all means forage away. Purslane is extremely nutritious - in addition to being a good source of fiber, Vitamins A, B and C and several minerals and anti-oxidants, purslane has more Omega 3 fatty acids than any other leafy plant source. Chefs like it because it is a juicy succulent with an unusual tangy, almost lemony taste. Whenever I've seen someone buying purslane, I've asked them what they planned to do with it. Here are some of the responses: 

  • Mixed green salad
  • "Hide it in a sandwich for extra nutrition"
  • Chopped salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and onions
  • Salad with watermelon
  • Wilted, like spinach or other greens, underneath a hunk of protein
  • In a soup
  • "I'm Turkish, so with yogurt or with lamb"

Purslane does indeed go well with tomatoes - juiciness meets juiciness - and I was intrigued by the watermelon suggestion. Another juicy idea!

This combination was a winner! As it happened, this particular watermelon wasn't that impressive on its own, but as a salad ingredient it was aces. (As an aside, I'm always on the lookout for ideas for disappointing produce (check out some entries in the When Bad Produce Happens to Good People series on this blog), and treating a fruit as a salad vegetable often lowers the bar satisfactorily.)  A good addition to this salad would be something salty - olives, capers - or just some salt itself. 

The other idea that appealed to me was wilting the purslane. Purslane can get a little slimy if it's overcooked, so a light hand and quick cooking time are in order. You could saute some chopped garlic in oil first or proceed without it.

Sometimes I like to eat the tangled web of purslane with chopsticks.

One final tip: Purslane stems may be sold without their roots or with them.

If the roots are intact, expect clumps of sod too.

Give the purslane a soak and thorough hosing.

Give them a haircut too - no need for rat-tails here!

A couple of times I've pinched tip of what I assume is a purslane stem's seed head and planted it in one of my flower pots. The success of this plant plan is by no means guaranteed: I've killed a few "weeds" in my time - this year, a lovely pot of spearmint - so I don't know if this ever-propagating plant will visit me next year. If not, no big deal. That's what farmers' markets are for.

1 comment:

  1. I love purslane!!! A grandmother of a student in my kid's class informed me that it grows wild all around her house in New Hampshire. I seethed with envy.