Garden Series IV: What’s Purslane?
Sometimes you just want to slap yourself upside the head and say, “Where have I been all of my life?” I had one of those moments recently when I found out that the name of a common “weed” I’d been tugging out of the dirt for years was called purslane. I was, after all, the kid that was reading Euell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” at age 12. How did I not know this?
Just what is purslane anyway?
This edible plant was long thought to originate in India and Persia and to have slowly traveled east. Fossil evidence shows that purslane grew in the New World as far back as the Early and Middle Archaic periods, from 8000 to 4000 BC.
The scientific name of the plant is Portulaca oleracea. Common names include little hogweed and pig weed. Purslane is evidently one of the most common plants in the world. It’s so common that the USDA classifies it a “noxious weed,” although it does have some beneficial properties. Anyone who gardens is apt to recognize the plant, but many may not know that it is edible, and quite nutritious to boot.
This epiphany of mine was brought about by Shannon McCabe, one of the three gardeners I have been following this summer for The Block Island Times. I was so surprised about my ignorance that I decided to see, assuming it was growing in my other gardeners’ plots, they knew what it was.
I asked Everett Littlefield, when I saw plentiful amounts in his garden if he knew what “that weed” was called.
“Pig weed?” He didn’t know it was also called purslane, nor that it was edible. I got him to take a bite. Hmmn.
There’s some in Irina Murphy’s garden too. She didn’t know what it was called either (but she’s forgiven since she comes from Moldova). But it grew all over her parents’ garden. They weeded it out and fed it to the chickens. “We had really healthy eggs,” she said.
By the 1500s, purslane had reached England, where it became a favored “salad herb” in the Elizabethan era. The Colonists brought it with them when they sailed to the Americas. Martha Washington had a “receipt” for pickled purslane dated 1749, and recipes remained common in American cookbooks until the 20th Century. And then it seems to have up and disappeared. “The Joy of Cooking” may have taught you how to cook opossum, squirrel and porcupine, but it is mute on the subject of purslane.
While I like to eat healthy food, when it comes to counting milligrams of this, that and the other thing, I can’t help but remember my mother’s mantra: just eat a varied diet of healthy foods. (She was a nurse, and wouldn’t buy us Flintstone vitamins, like all the other kids had.) However, I can’t help but be impressed by the nutritional powerhouse that is purslane.
Not only is it high in vitamins A, C and E, it has antioxidants as well. It is, so far, the leading contender for all leafy plants in the omega 3 fatty acid category. In a study of purslane, Dr. Artemis Somopoulos of The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, in Washington D.C. found that it has five times more omega 3’s (in combination) than spinach.
Those omega 3 fatty acids are intriguing things. They are crucial to the development and maintenance of the human nervous system. The fat in chubby babies is rich in omega 3’s when they are born, helping them develop. The traditional source has always been fish and shellfish, but fish in their natural habitats have become scarce, and pregnant mothers are discouraged from eating certain species due to the fear of mercury poisoning, among other things.
I can find no excuse for not eating purslane. It’s good for you, free, and plentiful in my garden. (My husband, the family vegetable farmer, thinks this is a cool looking succulent, so he “cultivates” it, even though the rest of the garden is relatively weed-free.) But would I like it?
I had a vague memory of purslane being discussed on a food website I frequent, but never paid much attention. After all, I thought it was unavailable. I found plenty of recipes on the internet though. Currently it seems most commonly used in Middle Eastern and Greek salads. It is a primary ingredient in the traditional Lebanese bread salad with mixed greens and vegetables called fattoush. Turkish recipes pair it with cucumbers, yogurt and other ingredients. In Mexico, it is called Verdulagas and is used in many dishes. Chopped and added to stews, the mucilaginous properties of the leaves will thicken the stew like okra.
Or it may be simply cooked like spinach (although it doesn’t wilt down like spinach), and that was what I opted to do for my first foray. I didn’t want to use a lot of ingredients up in case I hated the stuff. I sautéed some sliced onion in olive oil, then added sprigs of purslane and a bit of chopped garlic. The finished dish tasted like Swiss chard. It was good. I wondered if I would wake up the next day feeling smarter. I did.
My second recipe (and I will certainly be trying some more) was also quite simple: an omelet. I started by sautéing sprigs of purslane (four inch tips from the plant), again in some olive oil. After a few minutes, in went some chopped garlic. Then two beaten eggs are poured over the top. When it is partially cooked, one is supposed to flip the omelet, sprinkle with feta cheese, fold it over and let it be while the cheese melts. Well, my eggs stuck to the pan, so it all became scrambled eggs with purslane and feta. It was delicious, and this time did remind me more of the taste of spinach. I will be eating many more “omelets” like this in the future.
But one of my favorite discoveries in this purslane odyssey was the following sentence taken from the “Cooking with EL CHAVO” website www.Chanfles.com: “You know there’s something wrong when gourmet means the simple version from hundreds of years ago.”