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In Pursuit of Purslane

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“Let them eat purslane,” is what Marie Antoinette should have replied when the peasants complained they were starving. Little did she realize that this noxious weed is a powerhouse of health, packed with beta-carotene (think spinach), calcium (dairy, leafy greens), magnesium (fish, soybeans) and potassium (potatoes, beans, bananas). Furthermore, if ancient Chinese medicine and modern research reports are to be believed, the peasants would hardly have suffered from arthritis, respiratory and circulatory diseases, and they would have had healthier hearts due to unprecedented amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Loaded with vitamins A, C and E, purslane is rich in natural antioxidants, protecting the body from various cancers and boosting the immune system. High in fiber, with only 15 calories per 100 grams, a diet of purslane would have kept the peasants uncommonly fit and trim. All in all, the peasants would have subsisted quite well on it. 

Thought to be endemic to the Indian subcontinent, Portulaca oleracea, also known as pursely, pigweed and Mexican parsley, or verdolagas, has naturalized throughout most of the temperate world. It is an annual succulent and depending upon the environment, can reach up to 40 centimeters in height. This prolific plant’s success can be attributed to its ability to reproduce by spawning thousands of seeds, which can lie dormant in the soil up to 30 years. If you’ve ever attempted to pull one of these fleshy, yellow-flowered intruders out of your garden, you may have noticed those jade-plant-like leaves detaching themselves to hide in the crevices of your flagstone path. Left to their own devices, with a minimum of water and maximum sunshine, those little orphans will quickly morph into a multitude of perfidious new plants. The displaced plant is so clever, it is able to rush seed production with its personal stores of water and food if it feels stressed or threatened.

Although we classify it here in the States as a weed, many countries, particularly China, India, Mexico, Italy and Greece, traditionally include it in their daily diets. Purslane can be prepared in a variety of ways, including boiled, blanched or sautéed; essentially anything one would do with greens can be done to this venerable vegetable. If you are not afraid of okra as an agent of slime in soups and gumbos, you are sure to embrace purslane as a viable thickener. 

To appreciate its flavor, it can be compared to other familiar vegetables. The fat, juicy leaves resemble lemony cucumbers, while the thick, reddish stems have a rather pungent, peppery taste, somewhat like arugula. They are both good but best when small and tender, as the leaves and stems become more woody and strong-flavored with maturity. The tartness is due to oxalic acid, which occurs naturally in other greens such as spinach, beet greens and rhubarb. If you decide to give it a fair chance, the plant is best harvested in the morning while it’s at its freshest and the minute, edible flowers are still open. Just be sure to wash it thoroughly, since the ground-hugging sprawler tends to harbor dirt and grit.

Prepared fresh or cooked, purslane is featured widely in Latin cuisine and pairs well with tomatoes, onion, garlic, tomatillos, cucumber, chili peppers, dill, corn, potatoes, pork and beef. Prolonged cooking will cut the acidity and bring out a subtly sweet flavor. Leaves are commonly added to omelets, soups, stews and stir-fries. Used in lieu of spinach in salads, its naturally tangy flavor will pair well with dressings that are more herby or savory. Personally, I love it sautéed in extra virgin olive oil like spinach, kale, chard and wild mustard, with red pepper and garlic, or boiled like collard greens with bacon. My Mexican friend cooks it into the popular pork stew, Puerco con Verdolagas.

If you are curious but still loath to allow this much-maligned herb a chance to redeem itself in your gardens, not to worry, as it is showing up at farmer’s markets as well as many specialty grocers across the nation. Some diners have even found it served in salads at certain restaurants from New York to Seattle and beyond. Now, if Marie Antoinette had indeed encouraged the disgruntled peasants to eat purslane, she might have hung around long enough to enjoy it herself. Had the poor, hapless princess only kept her head, the pursuit of purslane could have changed the tide of history. As for myself, I will never be far from it, since the plant is prolific in my gardens. Noxious weed or coveted vegetable, the pursuit of purslane is merely a matter of personal opinion.

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Puerco con Verdolagas
(serves 6-8)
4 lbs. pork stew meat
1 onion, quartered
4 minced cloves of garlic, or to taste
3 chopped jalapeños
6 quartered tomatillos
¼ cup chopped cilantro
3 bunches verdolagas
cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper to taste

Directions
Cover pork with water in a stock pot, add seasonings and simmer until tender. Simmer onion, garlic, jalapeños, tomatillos and cilantro in another small pot until the skin falls off the tomatillos. Process in food processor until smooth. Add the sauce to the pork, make adjustments to the seasonings and let simmer for 15 minutes. Add the verdolagas and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro, avocado, radishes, or sliced jalapeños. Serve with refried beans and warm tortillas.