I wonder if you would un-invite yourself to dinner at my house if I told you that I was pulling a few weeds from the backyard and tossing them into a salad. Well? Still coming?
I became curious about purslane, also known as portulaca, porcellana and verdolaga, when I first read about it in Honey from a Weed – one of my most inspiring cookbooks.
During the Sixties the author, Patience Gray, accompanied her partner – a sculptor with “an appetite for marble” – on a quest throughout the Mediterranean; from the Greek Islands, through Tuscany and on to the Italian boot heel, Apulia. They lived in some pretty rugged circumstances, meeting the locals and eating lots of simple, rustic food. Her book is more like a memoir-travelogue with recipes, and reading it never fails to make me hungry.
In the Edible Weeds chapter, Gray describe how in springtime she would observe people foraging for certain tender weeds and herbs like wild fennel, chervil, mustard, dandelion and arugula, and tossing them with oil and lemon juice before devouring them as if they were bowls of vegetable spaghetti.
This is the origin of Mesclun, once a seasonal, wild mix of greens and now a ubiquitous prewashed plastic package of salad shipped from one coast to the other. Don’t get me wrong – those bags and boxes are a huge improvement over heads of boring iceberg lettuce and my life wouldn’t be the same without them, but there’s also something calculated and manufactured about their consistent allotment of salad; just so many pieces of radicchio, twiggy sticks of curly frisee and pieces of baby romaine. There’s not much wild in there.
Which leads me to my foraging experiment. Here I am in mid-summer with a yard full of weeds in their prime: crabgrass, hairy vetch, pokeweed, common spurge (often confused with purslane, but actually poisonous!) and purslane.
I admit I had some trepidation about eating a weed that I normally yank out from between the bricks of my front walk and throw into the yard waste pile, but felt better after I reminded myself that I was eating a wild food from my own yard. That’s pretty darn local.
It turns out that my weedy purslane is fleshy and succulent, with a mild flavor like bean sprouts. I didn’t find the texture to be at all “mucilaginous” – another word often used to describe its texture – thank goodness. I’m not a fan of slimy greens. I like that it’s crunchy and sweetly juicy when you eat a bite.
Purslane is also a mega source of precious Omega-3 fatty acids – more than any other green vegetable.
Along with some pea sprouts from Claverach Farm, I had a few little garden-grown yellow pear tomatoes and a cucumber from my friend Jenn, which I added to a bowl. I sprinkled everything with some lemon juice, really good extra-virgin olive oil, some sea salt and pepper. A salad was born!