Purslane—how can you not want to buy a green with a name like that? It sounds like a street I wish I lived on. I couldn’t resist it, piled up high, stems all in a twist, oversized teardrop-shape leaves waving around in the breeze as if to say, “Oh hey there, Produce Challenge Lady, I don’t believe we’ve met..!” And we sure hadn’t. In fact, I’d never laid eyes on that name before—not in a greenmarket, not in a restaurant, not in a friend’s kitchen. No place.
If you know what this is, I am tipping my big, ol’ hat because portulacaceae, as it is called in zee Latin, was a wonderful, wondrous mystery to me before two weeks ago. But what should I do with it? Chop it up and eat it raw? Cook it? Use it as some kind of infusion? What?! I did the first logical thing you can with something edible and mysterious (and seemingly safe) that doesn’t have spiny, mean bits or require fancy utensils to get to the meat of—I broke off a leaf and chewed. It was fleshy; my teeth practically sunk into its soft greenness. And it had a soft, almost herby, tangy taste that made it an obvious candidate for salads. But then I hit the information jack-pot—I invited a farm girl for dinner.
My friends Mark and Caroline came over for a meal one recent night, and I had just washed a bunch and it was sitting on a dish towel on my countertop. “Oh, purslane!” said Caroline, picking off a leaf and chewing it. I was stunned! And I guess my face showed it because so far no one knew what the stuff was and I couldn't believe she just waltzed in and solved the mystery just like that. “What?" she said incredulously, "I grew up on a farm! I know these things!” Caroline went on to tell me that it used to, and still does, grow wild all over her parents' acres in Massachusetts, and that she always loved the stuff. I had boiled up some red potatoes for a salad, and she thought it was a great idea to toss in the purslane, too, so we did.
Wanting to know a little more, I went to my “when in doubt” book of answers, Visual Food Encyclopedia, because I like pictures, darn-it, and this tome has long been my reliable source for everything from how many different kinds of smelt exist in the world to the oddball produce queries, like this one. And there it was on page 85, with both a photo of a tippy-top sprig of the stuff and one of those lovely, English horticultural drawings that somehow have become the domain of furniture catalogues and the T.J. Maxx wall-décor section. Here’s what it said:
“A perennial plant that is very common in the relatively warm regions of Central Europe and North and South America, where it is often found growing wild. There are over 40 different varieties of this decorative plant, which has been used for more than 3,500 years, both as a vegetable and for its medicinal properties. Purslane was very popular in medieval Europe, particularly among the English. It grows to between 2 and 4 inches high. Its branched stalks have a rubbery texture and are saturated with water [93%, according to the book’s nutritional info chart; also, it’s a very good source of vitamin A], as are its thick, tender, fleshy leaves… Purslane is harvested before flowering. It has a slightly acid and peppery taste.”
The VFE also said that if you just go straight-up vinegar with the stuff, it takes on a caper-like flavor, which might be kind of fun to try out in a braise with some fresh tomatoes and chicken.
When Dan and Caroline and Mark and I forked into the potato salad that night outside on my deck, the soft sweetness of those boiled reds, the tang of the purslane and a little vinegar, softened by the creaminess of the mayo and a little Greek yogurt was a really nice twist on an old favorite summer salad. I realized, though, that I didn't just have a new bit of green in my repertoire, I also had a new back-up plan for answers to all my things-that-grow conundrums: Invite a farm girl over for dinner.
Purslane and Red Potato Salad
- 3 lbs red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
- 1 1/2 heaping cups purslane, washed, trimmed off the stems, and roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 1 TBS white vinegar
- Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Boil potatoes in a large pot of water until fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and allow to cool until you can comfortably touch them (you want them to be a little warm to better absorb the flavors). Chop into 1 1/2-inch chunks and mix in the mayonnaise, yogurt, and vinegar. Mix well and toss in the purslane, gently spooning over until it’s blended in. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Amy Zavatto has been writing about wine, spirits, and food for ten years. Her work appears in Imbibe, Gotham, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, among others. She is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending and the co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing.