Pesky weed? Edible landscaping plant? Medicinal herb? Gourmet greens? Purslane is all of the above.
Purslane (Portulaca olearacea - also called "pigweed") is a determined and adaptive plant. According to a Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board handout, a single plant can produce 240,000 seeds which can remain viable in the soil for up to 40 years. A small part of the plant can sprout into a whole new plant. If you pull it up, the plant can still go on to produce seeds, and if it's anywhere near dirt it will root and grow again. It's even a succulent (meaning it stores water), so can withstand a certain amount of drought conditions. (That means it's also not an herb or vegetable.) Purslane takes hardiness to a whole new level.
(Though the Noxious Weed Control Board distributes information about purslane, it is not on the Whatcom County 2012 noxious weed list.)
According to Landscaping About.com (landscaping.about.com): "Purslane's stem is round and smooth, and it trails along the ground like a small vine. Young plants have a green stem, but, with maturity, stems take on reddish tints. Purslane has small, oblong, green leaves, which form clusters. The leaves resemble small wedges and, like the stem, are juicy." It's also described by others as resembling a tiny jade plant.
I had never tasted purslane so was excited to find bundles for sale at the Alm Hill Gardens booth at the Bellingham Farmers Market recently. The flavor was surprising and unique. Though food writers often describe purslane as interchangeable with green ingredients such as spinach, arugula, and chard, I didn't think purslane had the bitterness typical of those other greens. In fact, the flavor is so unique that I have difficulty describing it. Spicy? Peppery? Not quite. Earthy? Sweet? Maybe a little. Some call it "citrusy." Words fail me - you'll just have to try it yourself. However it is described, though, purslane is different, delightful, and delicious!
Purslane grows around the world (big surprise for such a persistent and pervasive little organism) and has become a common ingredient in some regional cuisines. In Greece and Turkey, for example, purslane has been frequently used since ancient times raw in salads with cucumbers, tomatoes, and goat cheese. Russians preserve it for use as a winter green. French serve it with fish. "Verdolaga," as it is called in Mexico, is used in omelets, soups, as a vegetable side dish, and as a filling in tortilla wraps.
Purslane was said to be Mathatma Gandhi's favorite food, and Henry David Thoreau described boiled purslane as a "satisfactory dinner."
Medicinal uses of purslane go back as far as culinary uses. In Europe, purslane has been considered a useful remedy for arthritis and other kinds of inflammation. Chinese herbalists used it similarly, but also found it helpful for improving respiratory and circulatory functioning. Purslane is also reported to reduce depression. Along with lettuce, amaranth greens, lamb's quarters greens and watercress, it is considered by some to be one of the five richest edible plants for antidepressant effects. Drinking tea made from the leaves is believed to bring down fever.
Nutritionally, purslane is surprisingly high in alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), one of the most valued antioxidant Omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of "The Omega Diet" says purslane is the richest known plant source of ALA. It even surpasses the levels in some fish oils. That makes it a good antioxidant option for vegetarians. It is rich in vitamins A, C, E, and some B-complex. It has one of the highest levels of potassium compared to other vegetables.
To prepare, purslane should be washed well and then dried before refrigerating. Leaves, stems, and flowers can be eaten raw, and leaves and tender stems can be sautéed, fried or steamed. Any tough stems should be removed. To preserve nutrients, purslane should be cooked over low heat and for as short a time as possible.
Today's recipe combines the flavor of early tomatoes with the gourmet flavor of purslane in a sauce that can be served over pasta (Bellingham Pasta, Bellingham) or local grains, such as triticale (Nooksack 9, Everson).
PURSLANE TOMATO SAUCE
1 tbsp. hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1 small red onion, chopped (Broadleaf Farm, Everson)
2 cloves garlic, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered (Nooksack 9, Everson)
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
1 bunch purslane, with lower woody stems removed (Alm Hill Gardens, Everson)
Salt, to taste
Put the oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot add the chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.
Add the minced garlic and continue to sauté for another minute or two until fragrance is released.
Add the chopped tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened into a sauce.
Add the cider vinegar and purslane and cook a few minutes longer until purslane is wilted.
Salt to taste.
Makes about 11/2 cups, enough for 2 servings.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Reach Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day to day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (www.facebook.com/whatcomlocavore). For complete weekly locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at whatcomlocavore.com.
Reach JULIE SHIRLEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2261.