Purslane grows like a weed between the rows of corn on my grandmother's south Jersey farm. I never paid it much mind until recently, when I realized that its sweet-tart-juicy flavor shouldn't go to waste any more than the corn should. Much to my delight, my community gardener friends and I discovered it growing in our little Brooklyn garden, so we'll work hard to harvest it - and to ensure that it doesn't take over our garden plots!
A Brief History of Purslane
A fleshy, leafy green, purlsane is likely native to Central Asia, the Near East or Europe - or all of the above. The Oxford Companion to Food notes that there is evidence that has been eaten for at least 2,000 years; it was cultivated in ancient Egypt and was enjoyed by the ancient Romans and Greeks. It was known to the Arabs in the medieval period, and may have been cultivated in Europe as early as the 13th century. (Purlsane is also commonly wild-harvested.) According to the University of California, the plant was first identified in the US in Massachusetts, in 1672. It now grows across the globe; in some places it is considered an invasive weed.
- Don't confuse purslane (Portulaca oleracea) with "winter purslane," an entirely different (though related) plant, also known as miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), which has its own interesting history.
- Purslane was said to be Gandhi's favorite food.
- According to Harold McGee's book, On Food and Cooking, "pigweed" is a nickname for purlsane; "the 19th century Englishman William Cobbett said it was suitable only for pigs and the French."
- McGee also notes that purslane's tartness comes from an abundance of malic acid. Succulents like purslane convert malic acid to glucose during the day. This means that purlsane harvested in the morning will be more tart than purslane harvested later in the day or evening.
Purslane is one hearty plant. It grows quite happily in rocky, poor and disturbed soils; seeds prolifically; and any piece of the plant that has been uprooted can re-root itself in the soil. This is why, in many agricultural parts of the US, purslane is cursed rather than celebrated. But we like it because it is good eating! Purslane grows wild (and thus can be foraged) in most of the US, but there are cultivars of the plant as well, should you want to try your hand at growing it. Cultivated purslane varietals tend to grow more upright, making harvesting easier. The plant has cute yellow flowers that will eventually produce a boatload of teeny, tiny black seeds.
Early summer to the end of fall is purslane season. We should note that it is difficult-to-impossible to find purslane in a conventional grocery store: check out your local farmers' market or find a place to forage for the green.
Environmental Impact of Purslane
Cultivated and wild-foraged purslane harvested for eating generally has minimal environmental impact, due to its niche veggie status. But because the plant is considered an invasive in many places, it is a "weed" that is frequently controlled with noxious herbicides, especially in larger (read: industrial) agricultural settings. (According to botanists at Perdue University, "it is considered one of the world's worst weeds, an agricultural pest in 45 crops in 81 countries.") As we have discussed before, herbicides like glyphosate (Monsanto's RoundUp) have wide-reaching environmental and public health impacts - what a shame to use them on a so-called "agricultural pest" that happens to be both delicious and nutritious. (*Check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below, for more thoughts on the environmental impacts of fruits and veggies.)
If you've ever had - or, in my case, killed - a jade houseplant, purslane looks pretty similar (but no, you can't eat jade plants). It has fleshy, oval-shaped leaves born on thick, succulent stems. Purslane has a juicy quality that is pretty unique among greens. Its flavor is slightly tart and a bit lemony - perfect for summer salads. The wild types tend to spread low to the ground, while cultivated types are more upright in nature. In our community garden, we have both the wild type and the cultivated type growing: the wild purslane has pink-ish stems and smaller leaves, and grows by spreading, while the cultivated type had more golden-green stems, larger, thicker leaves and is far more upright in its growing habit.
Here is a great, detailed description of the plant from Wildman Steve Brill's website, complete with lots of pictures. A note about foraging: please, we beg of you - do not eat anything you are not 100 percent sure is edible! This goes for purslane as well as many other wild edibles. As Wildman Brill points out, there is a poisonous purslane look-alike called spurge, which even tends to grow alongside purslane. So please, be very careful when foraging!
What to Look For
If you're able to find purslane at your local farmer's market, look for stems and leaves that are firm and fleshy to the touch: no floppy purslane, please! Avoid any purlsane that looks dried out, or that has black or brown spots. Wild-harvested purlsane tends to have smaller leaves than their cultivated cousins.
This is going to blow your mind: purslane has the most omega-3 fatty acids (the fatty acids also found in seafood like salmon) of any green vegetable. It's also high in Vitamins A and C, and has a bit of calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium and potassium.
What to Do with Purslane and How to Cook It
Tart, succulent purslane can be used like any green veggie - and is great both raw and cooked. If you're planning on cooking it, the green fares best steamed or sautéed, but it is also used in sauces and stews because its slightly mucilaginous quality can be utilized as a thickening agent. The green pairs well with other summer veggies, like green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and even eggplant.
Toss a handful of purslane leaves into a green salad for some lemony crunch, or add it to pasta, potato (see recipe below), bean or grain salads. It is common in Indian cuisine - here's a recipe for a purslane dal and a delicious-sounding Indian-style cooked purslane side dish with ginger and garlic. The green is also widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine - here's a recipe for a Persian-style purslane salad with cucumbers and tomatoes (perfect for summer) and another from the venerable Paula Wolfert for a Turkish lamb stew with purslane. Over at Chocolate and Zucchini, author Clotilde Dusoulier has written a brilliant post called "45 things to do with purslane," including a comprehensive list of purslane pairings, ideas for purslane salads and even a recipe for a purslane smoothie!
Store purslane stems in a jar with just a bit of water. Kept in the fridge, they'll keep only for a few days, so use them up right away!
How to Preserve Purlsane
Unfortunately, purslane is not a good candidate for freezing, nor does it even keep in the fridge for very long. What you can do is pickle it - here's a recipe for pickled purslane and another for pickled purlsane stems (a great way to put nose-to-tail veggie eating to good use)!
Recipe: Purslane and Potato Salad with Dill and Piment d'Espelette
Purslane and potatoes are naturals together - the green's succulent, tart, lemony qualities are a great foil for starchy potatoes. I prefer to use fingerling potatoes or Yukon golds when I make potato salad (especially mayo-less potato salad, as this one is), but you could also use red-skinned potatoes. Admittedly, this recipe has a few ingredients that may be a bit difficult to find: as we discussed above, you probably won't find purslane in your local grocery store, so you'll have to do a bit of farmers' market sleuthing (or foraging) to find some. And a word about piment d'Espelette: this is a spice made from ground, dried Espelette peppers, especially prized in Basque cuisine. It's just barely spicy, with a sweet-smokey quality that tastes delightful with potatoes, especially. Piment d'Espelette can be a bit...spendy (and hard to find), so you can easily substitute smoked paprika, sweet paprika or cayenne (just go easy on the cayenne), or a combination. I was lucky enough to find an Espelette seedling last year, and so was able to grow, dry and grind my own Piment d'Espelette, a spice that I've come to love in the kitchen.
1 lb. fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and halved (or quartered if very large)
2 tablespoons mild vinegar, such as apple cider or white-wine
1⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
1⁄4 teaspoon (or more, to taste) piment d'espelette
3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 cup purslane leaves (reserve stems for another use)
- Put the potatoes in a large, heavy saucepan and just barely cover with water (the water should come up no more than 1⁄2 inch above the potatoes). Add a large pinch of kosher salt to the potatoes and turn the heat up to high.
- When boiling, reduce to a high simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart (when you pierce them with the tip of a knife you will meet no resistance). Cooking time will vary greatly with the kind of potato you use and how large they are. Start checking after about 10 minutes and keep a close eye on them to avoid mushy potatoes.
- Carefully drain the potatoes in a large colander. Put the colander (with the potatoes in it) back over the pot the potatoes were cooked in and drizzle with the vinegar. Let the potatoes sit in the colander for 15-20 minutes to allow steam to escape, and to cool.
- Meanwile, make the dressing: in a small bowl, whisk together the extra virgin olive oil, the lemon juice, the piment d'espelette, the dill and a large pinch of kosher salt. Set aside.
- To make the salad: in a large serving bowl, add the cooled potatoes and gently toss with the dressing (I usually just use my hands). Taste and correct for salt: at this point, I usually add quite a bit more salt - don't be afraid, potatoes need a lot of salt! Gently toss in the purslane leaves. Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in June 2014.