Pick(ling) of the Week: Purslane

Last week’s weeding efforts produced a large volume of purslane. Since purslane is one of those edible weeds that has a higher nutrient content than most of the greens we deliberately plant, we thought it would be best to preserve it somehow. The trouble is, while excellent raw or cooked for immediate use, purslane is not known to last very long once removed from the ground. And after a few hours plucking on Gould street, we’d have to break the Guinness book of World Records for largest salad five hundred times over in order to make use of what we had. It was a lot.

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After doing some reading, we found out that purslane could be pickled, preserved, and used as a relish. We found a recipe for purslane pickled in apple cider vinegar and decided to give it a shot.

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After a long time spent washing, we jam packed 8 x 1L mason jars with purslane stems and leaves, and added garlic, pepper, and herbs from around our garden for flavouring. We included nasturtium and borage flowers, borage leaves, anise leaves, thyme, lemon thyme, oregano, garlic scapes, and chives in the mix. We then filled the jars up with apple cider vinegar, tightly fastened the lids and refrigerated for two weeks. Since we did not can them using a canning bath, these pickles need to remain refrigerated to keep fresh.

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If we have more purslane in the upcoming months (which we certainly will), we would like to try this recipe for pickled purslane stems.

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So what is purslane?

A couple of weeks ago we quoted the famous American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said that “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” While purslane’s virtues have been known for centuries, for the most part they have been lost to time, and now this nutrient-dense vegetable which some consider a “superfood” is more commonly considered nothing more than an annoyance.

Known in Spanish as “verdolagas” and still used in contemporary Mexican cuisine, purslane is a fleshy succulent (like cactus or aloe) that was once a common ingredient in the culinary traditions of Europe, North Africa, Middle East, and India. For centuries it has been seasoned with lemon, oil, mint, and other herbs, used in a salad, or beaten with eggs in an omelet. In ancient days, purslane was believed to protect against ancient spirits, and was argued by herbalists Pliny and Culpepper to be effective at curing headaches, repairing vision, treating wounds when used topically.

In A Feast of Weeds (2012), Luigi Ballerini notes that the ritual use of purslane extends nearly as far back in time as the concept of time itself:

“Although practically forgotten today, archaeological evidence from the excavations undertaken around the sanctuary of Hera, on the island of Samos, dates the consumption of purslane to the mists of time, that is, to the era in which, in the swamps formed by the Imbrasos River, the locals began to practice the cult of the Goddess who would subsequently be unhappily married to the supreme head of the Olympic gods and end up being called (in Homeric style) white-armed Hera.”

The uses of purslane are not merely the subject of ancient lore. Several peer-reviewed studies have been undertaken which confirm its benefits. In 2010, the Journal of Science & Food Agriculture published that eggs produced by chickens fed purslane had a dramatic increase in their omega 3 fatty acid content over eggs produced by the control group.  Another study suggested that a diet which included purslane increased the circulation of melatonin in chickens and rats.

Purslane is rich in omega-3 fatty acids (containing more than flaxseed or any other plant). It is a significant source of vitamins (A,B,C,E), calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, lithium, and melatonin. Purslane also has a high level of antioxidants, including ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, tocopherol, and gluthathione, concentrated mainly in the leaves.

Native to India and Persia, it has been well-established and naturalized across the world. Though purslane is an annual, it produces thousands of seeds from its stems and can not only quickly colonize an entire garden plot, but remain there for years. Many people in North America, gardeners especially, consider it a noxious invasive species, though there is some evidence to suggest it reached these shores before Columbus and the Europeans did.

Given its nutritive qualities and opportunist (read: weedy) demeanour, why not relocate purslane to the dinner plate instead of the compost? It’s leaves, stems, and seeds can all be eaten, either raw or cooked. While the smaller leaves have that generic and vaguely tasteless “green” flavour that is pretty with among plants, the larger leaves often are a little tastier and have a slight lemon aroma. Raw, it can be added like sprouts to garnish salads, sandwiches, or soups. If you are dealing with larger quantities of purslane, you can cook it down as you would spinach and add it to pasta, omelettes, or tacos. For the latter, we’ve already posted a recipe here.

If you are interested in learning more about edible weeds that pop up around the garden, come to our Edible Weeds Workshop this Thursday at 12. We’ll go over some tips for identifying common edible weeds, some recipes for preparing them, and then go out into the field and forage as much as we can find from our own garden plots.

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