A COOK'S GARDEN

A Weed to Welcome Summer

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Its name in Mexico, verdolagas , evokes green lakes. Up north it's purslane, and as sure as the sun will rise to its zenith on June 21, purslane will appear in my garden and spread its verdant mats from shore to shore. This is the quintessential weed of summer, its vigor fed by warm, bright days and the moist, fertile, cultivated soil of beds where other plants have legitimate rights.

Another name, fatweed, well describes purslane's leaves -- little paddles that ooze a milky juice when cut. (Its Latin name, Portulaca oleracea, means "milk-bearing vegetable.") Equally succulent are the red stems, which fan out from the center of the clump. The earth-colored seedlings are easily missed, and before you know it they are off and running. Their role in nature is not to torment you but to cover disturbed ground, to lay claim to any patch laid newly bare and thereby prevent it from blowing or washing away. In the process they provide food and liquid to any creature smart enough to take a bite.

I've always had an odd affection for purslane. As weeds go, it's not hard to tackle -- I just grasp the center of the rosette and neatly pluck out the root, bringing the whole thing into my bucket with a satisfying swoosh. A hoe will dispatch it with a well-aimed slice, but it pays to rake it up promptly. Even in wilty weather it can lie there uprooted and produce the multitudes of tiny seeds by which it does its colonizing, and a rainstorm will set it to regrowing precisely where it landed.

I've also long appreciated it as a wild food (if something that annually enters into a forced domestic arrangement with you can be called "wild"). It is one of the few forage greens that is actually delicious and refreshing to nibble right where it's found. I spray it with the hose, since ground-hugging is a dusty business, and munch it as I weed, like gardeners the world over. Purslane is a global plant that grows wherever there are sun, rain and two consecutive frost-free months. Its culinary use goes back 2,000 years in the Middle East, and our native tribes were avid consumers who used the nutritious seeds for cereal and bread.

Purslane achieved gourmet status when European breeders developed its fancier forms. I don't mean the ornamental portulacas used in rock gardens, with their showy flowers in bright tissue-paper colors (though these are cousins of our feral friend). I'm thinking of the varieties bred for large, upright foliage in shades of green, red and bright gold. These are useful as warm-weather greens, since most leaf crops grow best when it's cool. And they're pretty in a vegetable or herb garden. I've found you need to water them often when it's dry, or they become pale and spindly. But they're a quick crop you can plant in succession all summer. Their taste is a bit bland compared with the wild form, whose flavor has a slight acid tang without being either pungent or bitter. Its taste is often described as cooling.

I also suspect that the nutritional powers ascribed to purslane are greater in its unbred state. The plant is rich in vitamin E, vitamin C and beta carotene, and quite high in protein. Most noteworthy of all, it is considered a better source of essential omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy plant. These are compounds the body cannot make itself, which are needed to complement the omega-6 fatty acids we get from grains and grain-fed meat. Wild-caught salmon and freshly hulled walnuts also deliver this prize, but for a steady supply what could be handier than a plant that leaps into your own personal food system with the ardor of an overactive puppy?

I like to chill fresh, rinsed purslane and toss it into summer salads for a contrasting texture, or slip it into an omelet or sandwich. It greatly improves a salad of cucumber and yogurt or sour cream. Try it with sliced oranges, watercress and vinaigrette. It can be steamed, sauteed, pickled, or breaded and fried in fritters. Because it has some of the viscous quality found in okra, it will thicken soups and stews.

Or try Henry David Thoreau's 1854 recipe from Walden:

"I learned from my two years' experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one's necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner . . . simply off a dish of purslane ( Portulaca oleracea ) which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. . . . Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries but for want of luxuries."

In Thoreau's case, a recipe for a way of life. I'd also add a big lump of butter.


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