Foraged from roadsides and the farmers' markets

Purslane

by Paula Wolfert

Purslane

Elizabeth Cecil

An annual plant, purslane reproduces from seeds and stem pieces. It grows like a weed.  

In the late 1980s, when I was working on my book Mediterranean Grains and Greens, most afternoons I’d stop by the wonderful farm stand on Old County Road to pick up fresh produce for testing in my recipes.

This farm stand had gone through quite a few mutations through the years, but the people running it and the various farmers who worked its fields were always warm and friendly.

One day, when I needed some purslane and couldn’t find any at the farmers’ market, the farmer at the stand that summer made me an offer: “You want that stuff, just go pick it,” he said, gesturing toward the adjoining fi eld. “Nobody around here’ll buy it, so we treat it like a weed. Give that stuff an inch, it’ll take over the whole field.”

When I was done picking and tried to pay him, he turned down my money and grinned. “Come and pick it any time you want,” he said. “Fact, since you’re a good customer, I’ll give you free life-time rights to all the purslane you want.” Free life-time rights! Lucky me! In fact, his gesture only proved what I’d long believed: that purslane, so earthy and robust, light and nourishing, crisp and succulent, one of the most revered of all wild greens around the Mediterranean, and for me such a prize, was, in my native land, regarded as little better than an unsalable nuisance.

Oh, how the world has changed!

More and more people now recognize purslane, for what it really is—a marvelous, delicious, healthful, edible wild green that is a fine component for salads as well as numerous cooked dishes.


Foraging Purslane

Clusters of purslane (Portulaca olearacae) can be found growing wild most everywhere—along garden rows, amidst lawns, even slithering its way through sidewalk cracks.

It’s easy to recognize by its tear-shaped leaves and thickish stems and special tart aroma. If you have any doubt, bite into a piece. Its tangy sour taste, which makes it so perfect for balancing off other summer vegetables, will be instantly recognizable.

These beautiful greens are among the healthiest, with lots of essential amino acids and vitamins and high in omega-3s. In fact, in this regard it’s considered almost as perfect as fish oil.

If you want to undertake a purslane exploration, start with just a few sprigs. The delicious traditional Eastern Mediterranean salad, fattoush, always includes tiny purslane leaves.

Use them too along with other greens and/or raw tomatoes in salads. Or use sprigs to embellish spicy cooked salads of roasted peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.

Slip some leaves into omelets, or use them to adorn a sauté of small potatoes, adding a pleasant bitter flavor. But it’s when purslane is used in large amounts that this amazing green truly comes into its own…which was why my free life-time rights at that West Tisbury farm stand struck me as so valuable.

Forage for purslane, purchase it at your farmers’ market or make a similar deal with a local farmer, pick it in quantity, then do as Moroccan cooks do—steam, fry, spice and whip the leaves with olive oil to make dreamy cooked green salads, or as Moroccan and Turkish cooks do—combine it with lentils and chickpeas for a complete meal.

In Turkey purslane is so beloved that it is dried (which takes a week, set between newspapers in the shade), then rehydrated in winter to make a delicious and succulent lentil soup and sometimes pickled and served as a garnish to grilled fish. Purslane can be frozen too, so you can use it even out of season.