By Laura Vozzella
Purslane sprouts from sidewalk cracks, invades gardens and earns contempt from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies it as a "noxious weed."
It also happens to be a "superfood" high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene, one tasty enough to spread, like the weed it is, to farmers' markets and fancy restaurants.
"We have all this sitting in our front yard, and we can eat it, and it's cheaper than salmon," said Joan Norman, owner of One Straw Farm in White Hall.
This terrestrial source of Omega-3 fatty acids has added appeal at a time when buying fish has become so complicated that consumers have to consult their smart phones for the latest health and environmental bulletins.
Known formally as portulaca oleracea, and informally as little hogweed, purslane is a succulent herb that looks, as one Baltimore chef put it, like a miniature jade plant. A more colorful description can be found in seed catalogs, which note that in Malawi, the name for the fleshy, round-leafed plant translates to "the buttocks of the wife of a chief."
The moisture-rich leaves are cucumber-crisp, and have a tart, almost lemony tang with a peppery kick. But taste is not the only reason to eat it.
"It's a miracle plant," said Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, who discovered while working at the National Institutes of Health that the plant had the highest level of Omega-3 fatty acids of any other green plant.
Her research was first reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in the late 1980s, but it has taken time for nutrition awareness and food culture to catch up. At least in the United States. Purslane has been eaten for ages in places like Crete and Uzbekistan.
Early Americans appreciated it, too. Martha Washington had a recipe for pickled "pursland" in the Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, the collection of hand-written family recipes she received as a wedding gift, according to mountvernon.org.
But the plant fell out of culinary fashion here until its recent rediscovery by food-foraging, weed-eating epicures.
"Now you can find purslane in farmers' markets," said Simopoulos, who had it served to her in not one, but two, salads at Mourayo, an elegant Greek restaurant in Washington. It was combined with tomatoes and feta in one salad, Romaine and scallions in the other.
"I think anyone who has a vegetable garden this year, the purslane will grow as a weed in it," she said. "They should not really throw it out. They should eat it."
The weed is showing up on Baltimore menus as well. Chef-owner Winston Blick of Clementine restaurant in Hamilton uses it in some salads. So does Aldo's Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy.
"When you bite into it, it bursts," said Aldo's owner Sergio Vitale. Vitale grew up eating the weed in his native Calabria, in southern Italy.
But purslane only made it onto plates in the family restaurant in the past few years. They toss the rough-chopped leaves and the tenderest parts of the stem into salads, like the panzanella on the menu for next week's restaurant week. (In the panzanella, a mixture of purslane, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, olive oil and vinegar and onions are served over crusty bread.)
The purslane's flavor — Vitale finds it "a bit acrid," with tannins in the stems making it "almost peppery like arugula" — is not its chief selling point for the restaurateur. He likes the crisp, juicy texture.
When Aldo's first started adding purslane to salads a few years ago, Vitale said he noticed plates coming back into the kitchen cleaned of all but the mysterious green. He quickly had a purslane education session with the staff — "what is it, where we get it, health properties" — so they could help assure diners that it wasn't an errant weed.
Aldo's also had to convince the local farmers that it didn't belong in the compost heap. "We had to teach the farmer what it was, and he'd pick it for us," he said.
Norman, the One Straw Farm owner, is also working to spread the word that purslane is worth eating.
"If I can sell my weeds, I'm really making money," she said.
One Straw offers a popular community-supported agriculture program known as a CSA, through which customers pay for a season's worth of produce up front and get a weekly allotment of veggies. When purslane shows up in the CSA box, customers are puzzled.
"The first question is, 'What is it?'" Norman said. "And you say, 'It's purslane. … It's a weed.' At that point, they say, 'Is that what I saw on the front sidewalk? I can eat it?'"
Norman's response to that: "Well, it depends where your dog goes."
One stumped CSA subscriber recently posted a photo of purslane on the Google group Baltimore Food Makers, asking for help identifying the mystery green.
Hanne Blank, an author and accomplished cook, was among those who piped up to sing purslane's praises.
She recommended it in dishes ranging from Salade Nicoise ("its texture and taste marry well with the oily/pungent things like olives and anchovies") to the Mexican pork stew Puerco con Verdolagas ("it does become mucilaginous, but the effect is very like putting okra in gumbo").
"The only thing to bear in mind with purslane is that you either want it raw/barely cooked through, or else you wanna cook the [heck] out of it, probably with an acid along for the ride," she wrote. "Anything in between is likely to seem unpleasantly slimy to the American palate."
From July until frost, Jamie Forsythe is surrounded by purslane by day, as manager of the Karzai restaurant group's Fig Leaf Farm in Howard County, Maryland. He takes some of the stuff with him to his night job, as chef at b restaurant in Bolton Hill.
He likes its "lemony" and "assertive cucumber" flavors, at least before the plant flowers later in the season and gets too tough.
"We've used it to finish soups," he said. "When you get it when it's small and tender, it's really great for a salad."
Not that he's growing the stuff on purpose at the restaurant farm. It just sprouted around his corn and tomato plants.
"I know someone who tried to cultivate it once and they were never able to get rid of it," he said. "Like mint."
For recipes visit Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture's website at prairielandcsa.org.
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