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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Purslane: Weed, Culinary Star, and Cure-all

Purslane: Weed, Culinary Star, and Cure-all
English: Purslane
Español: Verdolaga
Latin: Portulaca oleracea

What common edible weed has six times more vitamin E than spinach, seven times more beta carotene than carrots, and more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant? Purslane. Gathered in the wild throughout the world, this nutrient-rich plant has been used as a medicine for over 2000 years and for 10,000 years or more as a food source. And now it is creeping its way back onto American tables. Why?

Widely eaten today throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and Mexico, purslane is currently being rediscovered by Americans as it shines in farmers’ markets across the country and in whole food emporiums. High in vitamins and minerals, it is said to have antifungal and antimicrobial properties as well. The once-reviled weed is finding its place again in the culinary world as both a salad and pot-herb. Its succulent leaves and stems, which resemble a little jade plant, provide a tangy, slightly sour crunch to salads and a mildly mucilaginous addition to soups and stews. Popular in Mexico where I live, it stars in guisados, or stews, with tomatillos and pork. And though it is sold in markets as a familiar comfort-food filling for tacos, rarely do the Mexican cooks in my classes know it as a salad ingredient.

Currently, I may be a cooking teacher, but as a former English literature instructor, I can’t help but revel in Henry David Thoreau’s personal recipe from On Walden Pond:
"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."

Although I now recognize it as a familiar weed from my youth in Florida, my own first culinary encounter with purslane came while I was teaching at Bahrain University, where it was offered almost daily in the cafeteria in some form as a salad. After a trip to the souk, I regularly returned home with olives and feta cheese, both fished from brine-filled vats which in my mind oozed authenticity and which inspired me to add a Greek fillip to my usual purslane salad. Hardy purslane also grows wild in Morocco, where it often finds its way to the table steamed, chopped, and served on its own as a salad or combined with other vegetables such as carrots or beets. After spending almost three months in Morocco in 2007, where I took two small groups of independent-minded women travelers, I came up with a salad recipe to combine uncooked purslane with charmoula, a heady blend of herbs and spices traditionally used as a marinade for fish. In my recipe, the charmoula serves as a salad dressing for a hearty salad made of purslane, tomatoes, cooked beets, cucumber, red bell pepper, and spring onions. Later in Mexico I learned to appreciate it cooked. Here are several recipes which celebrate both the raw and cooked forms:

From Bahrain: Chopped Salad with Purslane, Garbanzos and Feta
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

For the salad:
2 cups purslane
1 cup cooked and drained garbanzo beans
1 red or yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/4 cup Kalamata olives
2 green onions, sliced
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/4 cup feta cheese, in cubes

For the dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons mint, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground sumac or 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
A pinch of ground cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the salad: Remove the leaves from the purslane, leaving small clusters of leaves together and larger leaves separate. Dice the tender stems, discarding the larger, tougher ones. Place purslane in a large bowl with the remaining salad ingredients.

To make the dressing: Place lemon juice, garlic, mint, sumac or cumin, and cayenne in a small bowl. Add oil slowly, whisking to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk again and pour over salad ingredients. Toss the salad. Chill until time to serve.

From Morocco: Charmoula Salad Dressing
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Note: This dressing works well with sturdy salads, lentils, garbanzos, chicken, fish, shrimp, as a dipping sauce for flatbread, or poured over feta cheese. Although you can certainly pound the ingredients with a mortar and pestle, a blender or food processor works just as well.

1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves and tender stems
1/4 cup loosely packed parsley leaves and tender stems
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped (optional)
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 small red Serrano chile, minced with seeds
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest (not traditional, but nice)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Process or pound all the ingredients except the olive oil into a loose paste. Slowly add the olive oil. Transfer to a bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning. Store in refrigerator.

The following recipe appeared in a bi-lingual cookbook Flavors of San Miguel, which I wrote several years ago. It was given to me by the mother of Juan José Villaseñor Neri, owner of the popular San Miguel de Allende restaurant El Ten Ten Pie.

From Mexico: Pork and Purslane in Green Sauce
(Recipe from Flavors of San Miguel de Allende by Victoria Challancin)
Serves 6.

2 pounds pork, cubed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 white onion, peeled and cut in half
A small handful fresh cilantro (approximately 1/4 cup plus
a few sprigs)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds tomatillos, husks and stems removed
Serrano chiles to taste, approximately 2 to 4
2 pounds purslane, trimmed
Salt and black pepper to taste

Cook meat in water to cover with one garlic clove, 1/2 onion, and a few sprigs of cilantro until tender. Remove meat, saving broth, and fry in hot oil in heavy pot until well-browned. Drain on paper towels.

In blender purée tomatillos, two garlic cloves, 1/2 onion, chiles, and remaining cilantro. Add salt, black pepper, and solids from cooking broth. Blend well, then place in a large saucepan or casserole with pork broth. Add meat and purslane leaves and tips. Cook until purslane is cooked through and is well-seasoned, about 20 to 30 minutes. Check and adjust seasonings.

En Español: Verdolagas con Carne de Cerdo
(Receta de Flavors of San Miguel de Allende por Victoria Challancin)
Rinde 6 porciones.

1 kilo de carne de cerdo en cubos
3 dientes de ajo, pelados
1 cebolla blanca, cortada en la mitad
1 manojo pequeño de cilantro fresco (aproximadamente
1/4 de taza y unas ramitas)
2 cucharadas de aceite vegetal
750 gr de tomate verde sin cáscara
Chile Serrano al gusto
1 kilo de verdolagas, limpias y cortadas
Sal y pimienta negra recien molida, al gusto

Cueza la carne en suficiente agua con un diente de ajo, 1/2 cebolla, los chiles y unas ramitas de cilantro hasta qu esté suave. Retire la carne y guarde el caldo. Fría la carne en aceite caliente hasta que dore. Escurra en toallas de papel.

Licúe los tomates, dos dientes de ajo, 1/2 cebolla y lo que queda de cilantro. Agregue sal, pimienta negra y los sólidos del caldo. Mezcle todo muy bien. Junte el caldo con el contenido de la licuadora en un sartén. Agregue la carne y las verdolagas. Cocine hasta que estén cocidas, de 20 a 30 minutos. Cheque el sazón.

History and Health Benifits of Purslane

Most of us are familiar with the popular catch phrases and buzz words of modern health such as antioxidents and essential fatty acids (EFAs) without really knowing why they are necessary as well as good for us. A simple answer is that Omega-3, which is so abundant in purslane, is a name given to a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to the diet. Because the human body cannot manufacture EFAs and because research indicates that omega-3s may be better absorbed from food than supplements, we must look to our diets to provide them. In addition, Vitamin E, the primary fat-soluble antioxidant, protects omega-3 fats from oxidizing and thus producing harmful free radicals.

Although I can’t vouch for its efficacy as a cure-all, research shows that among other things, purslane was used by the ancient Greeks for constipation and inflammation of the urinary system. Pliny even advised wearing it as an amulet to expel evil. Dioscorides, a first century Greek physician/pharmacologist/botanist who wrote the five-volume precursor to all modern pharmacopeias, recognized its medicinal powers as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic (for pain), emollient and soothing, antifebrifuge (for fever), and anthelmintic (for intestinal worms). In Northern India, where it apparently originated, it gained respect in antiquity as a liver tonic and a boost in the modern culinary world once it was touted as Gandhi’s favorite food. The ancient Romans used it to treat dysentery, intestinal worms, headache, and stomachache. Medieval European herbals show it was used internally with sugar and honey for dry coughs and externally for inflammation and sores. The famous 17th-century British herbalist Nicholas Culpepper suggested it to treat thirst, gout, loose teeth, and worms. The seeds were ground for flour for cakes by both Australian aborigines and the ancient Greeks. Modern Russians still dry or can purslane for use as a winter food. And Mexicans believe it helps reduce fever and aids diabetics. The list goes on and on.

Here is a short version of tells us about Omega 3 fatty acids:

What can high-omega-3 foods do for you?

  • Reduce inflammation throughout your body
  • Keep your blood from clotting excessively
  • Maintain the fluidity of your cell membranes
  • Lower the amount of lipids (fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) circulating in the bloodstream
  • Decrease platelet aggregation, preventing excessive blood clotting
  • Inhibit thickening of the arteries
  • Reduce the inflammatory response associated with atherosclerosis
  • Reduce the risk of becoming obese
  • Improve the body's ability to respond to insulin
  • Regulate food intake, body weight and metabolism
  • Help prevent cancer cell growth

What conditions or symptoms indicate a need for more high-omega-3 foods?

  • Depression
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Joint pain


PEI traveler said...

Thanks for the Moroccan Chermoula dressing recipe. For Easter dinner I made cous cous cakes to go with grilled lamb and wanted a colorful, spicy sauce for them. I remembered this recipe on your site and gave it a try. It was a major hit with all my guests.We have since drizzeled it on poached eggs and love the flavors.

Victoria Challancin said...

So sorry you are having problems with the loading of the photos. I am not sure what I can do from my end, but I will look into it. Thanks you.