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I was among friends last week, discussing the virtues of okra. Some preferred to categorize the “slime” as a “thickening agent” while others insisted you need to be a wood pecker to eat one. The little ones are best, of course but often they get too big to be edible. While okra is indeed a great thickening agent in gumbo and other quintessential southern dishes there is another plant lurking in the garden that can do the same- and you can usually just find it growing along a path or in the flower garden.
I knew that purslane could be used in salads or soups but have never made much of an effort to harvest and devise a kitchen plan until a few years ago when I had this fabulous stand of the weed in my kitchen garden after I pulled the old greens that bolted from the summer heat. It made perfect sense to let it grow and flourish because no lettuce seed would be germinating in the heat and I knew that this garden was free from any pesticides. So, the purslane established and since then I have turned young and old onto its culinary virtues.
My friend and author Nancy Gift describes purslane (Portulacca olereaca) as a “flat-growing plant with succulent, thick leaves, usually roughly an inch long and a thick stem. It grows best in dry places (sand, gravel) but also grows in gardens. Purslane leaves are deep green, slightly shiny, with small whitish hairs underneath, and the leaf edges and stems often have a purplish or reddish cast.” It has a jade like appearance for a weed. In a preview of Nancy’s book, Good Weed, Bad Weed, her section on purslane definitely represents the good side of the piquant green. Consider giving it a try and look for her book if you are interested in learning more about the virtues of all living things.
I found a few recipes that complement the flavor of purslane which I can best describe as sour-piquant. Any variation on the theme will work so don’t bother sticking to the recipes exactly. You can also just add a few of its leaves to any leafy green salad.
My favorite purslane combo is a lightly dressed potato salad. Stem one inch pieces of cut potatoes for about 10 minutes and let cool in a large shallow bowl. Combine half cup of olive oil, three tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a pinch of salt for your dressing. On top of the potatoes layer rough cut tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and pepper, purslane, and chopped mint (more or less as you desire of anything). Drizzle the dressing, salt and pepper to taste and toss gently. One time I also added a few dollops of ricotta cheese which gave the salad a slight creamy texture.
One of the ways I also sold this salad to dinner guests over the years is to talk about the healthy virtues of this so-called weed: purslane is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, beta carotene, magnesium and potassium; so, therefore good for blood pressure and cholesterol. Why are we not eating more of this?
The next recipe is a simple tomato, cucumber, purslane, basil and yogurt salad. Think about marinated cucumbers with yogurt base instead of vinegar while adding a few more ingredients. Season it as you wish.
Purslane is an annual and will be knocked back at first frost so before this happens I will gather what I can find and make a fall gumbo. When purslane is cooked in a broth it actually acts as a thickening agent like our beloved “slimy” okra. This recipe came via Esther Heizer in Clarksville, Indianato my father many years ago. Saute half a cup of chopped onion in about a tablespoon of butter; blend in about a tablespoon flour, add one cup of chopped tomatoes, two cups (or more) stock, about half pound cubed fish or chicken (or keep it vegetarian and add more vegetables), two cups purslane and a handful of chopped fresh basil. Let it all simmer until meat and or vegetables are tender.
I have also read that purslane is a good flavor complement to pork and lamb so this will be on the fall menu, when we harvest lambs from Swallow Rail Farm for the first time.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at Jwiche@shelbybb.net. or at www.SwallowRailFarm.com)