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Monday, August 20, 2012

Purslane, or Verdolagas an edible that deserves more respect

I have always had a thing for wild edibles.  Even having foraged for years, it is still amazing to me that you can go outdoors, pick something, and just start munching.  You do not have to carefully nurture the seed, transplant it, water it, weed it; the seed does what it is meant to and grows where it is suited.  This is one of the things about wild edibles, you get to see how life continues, even in inhospitable circumstances. 
One of my favorite wild edibles is purslane.  It has a unique shape, making it easy to identify, and it seems to crop up in the most unforgiving places.  One of the places I have seen it most is through cracks in an asphalt parking lot, and between bricks on an old brick street.  There don't come many wild edibles more hardy than purslane.  And it seems to adore the heat.  Usually purslane isn't even present during the spring or the start of the summer, but when the dog days get here and everything is wilting, purslane is at its finest.
And what a change from the every day plants it is.  Purslane is a succulent plant, with shining bulging leaves, that sometimes even sparkle in the sun.  The leaves are bright green teardrops, and are truly a beauty to behold.
One of the greatest things about purslane though is the taste.  Now a lot of wild edibles are wild because their taste isn't that great.  But purslane is mostly wild because it is too successful.  People have spent hours of backbreaking work trying to totally remove it from their gardens, and they aren't going to put it back in.  Which is a shame, because this is a green that has a lot going for it.
I find the taste of purslane to be similar to snow peas.  It is bursting with juice, and has a little bit of a slick texture to it.  The stems tend to be bitter, but if you only pick small stems they should be fine.  Purslane seems to have a bit of a sourness to it as well, and also seems to cool the mouth.  All of these attributes can combine well in a salad.  Adding less dressing, the purslane makes up for.  Opposing the crispness of lettuce, you have the slight crunch and slickness of purslane.  The leaves show up beautifully, and their shape and color blend gorgeously with a salad.
There are cultivated forms of purslane, and they do have some advantages, although the flavors are largely the same as wild purslane.  First, cultivated purslane grows more upright, which means that there is less dirt and grit in the leaves to be washed out.  Second, cultivated purslane grows much larger leaves.  The leaves of a wild plant my be 1/2 inch by 3/4 inch.  The leaves of a cultivated plant may be 1 inch by 2 1/2 inches.  It is much easier to harvest a few large leaves than a bunch of small ones.  And third, there are varieties of cultivated purslane that are a brilliant yellow, making this a beautiful vegetable that shows up well amongst others.
Purslane isn't simply good raw however.  It is delicious raw, but in Mexico and Central America, there are numerous ways to cook it.  One way is to saute it like any green, with a little olive oil and garlic.  This can be used as a side dish, or wrapped in tortillas.  Another great way is to make purslane into a salsa verde.  Recipes for a variety of Mexican purslane dishes can be found here.  Purslane remains a little slick when cooked, and can give a mucilaginous texture similar to okra. 
And that isn't all.  According to author Michael Pollan, purslane may be one of the most nutritious plants on the planet.  It has a high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, which is hard to find in plants.  In addition to this, purslane is loaded with minerals, so much so that the ashes of burnt purslane can be used as a salt substitute. 
Purslane isn't just some plant that makes a nice novelty.  It is a truly useful plant, that grows in the harshest conditions and is amazingly healthy.  Add to this the fact that it taste wonderful and can be used in a variety of ways, and you have a plant that deserves much more use and respect than it is typically given.  Go ahead, give purslane a try, see if you cannot find some new uses for it.

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