23 August 2013

Eating the Enemy, Part II

           The more we got to know about purslane, the greater our wonder and respect for it. It has an astoundingly high level of omega-3 fatty acids, more than any other vegetable. And omega 3’s are very fashionable these days. Purslane is loaded with vitamins, especially vitamin C and E, along with lots of healthy minerals and antioxidants. Doctors have been singing its praises since antiquity, for countering inflammation, sore throats, ulcers and earaches. It’s good for the heart and the joints. Put some in a poultice on your bee stings and boils. 

Even in the  garden, purslane’s fans claim it is the most virtuous of weeds. It makes good ground cover to hold moisture in the soil, and breaks up soil to help plants with less robust roots. (Maybe so, but if you let it, it will take over everything. Everything.)

There’s been no rain for two weeks now, but the purslane just keeps coming. It’s time to yank some up and cook it. Everyone who has ever used the stuff recommends picking it in the morning. The plant employs an unusual sort of photosynthesis; it does its work at night, storing up nutrition in the form of a slightly acidic chemical, which it converts to sugars over the course of the day. Get it in the morning while it’s still tart.

This we do. We have to cut off the roots and soak it; growing next to the ground it picks up a lot of dirt. Italians have been eating porcellana (also called portulaca) forever. The Milanese Bonvesin de la Riva mentions it in his list of foods in his 1288 Marvels of the City of Milan.  But we haven’t found a lot of compelling recipes for it.  So we try it the most common way: like any other green, sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil (and a chopped chilli, because that’s the way we are). It looks about like any other green when it’s done, but I have to admit we were a little disappointed by the taste. The tartness disappeared, and a  blandness replaced it. Fortunately we didn’t cook it too long. That’s the worst mistake you can make; after about five minutes on the stove a sort of gluey texture starts to emerge—not nice. Five minutes is just about right.

            One cookbook suggests making a sauce for meat or fish: mash up a bunch of it, with an egg white, an anchovy and some oil. Others remind us that  the country folk used to make it  sott’aceto, preserved in vinegar. Everyone else seems to limit it to salads: with cucumber, with tomato, beetroot, beans, lentils or whatever.  There’s a nice one (in Italian) involving cold chicken, basil, pistachios, shaved grana padano and red currants.

            Bottom line—it’s absolutely fine in salads, though it will never be a star. You can leave the smaller stems in, and there doesn’t seem to be any difference in taste between the young shoots and the full-grown monsters.

            The Italians haven’t provided much inspiration, so we looked to see what the French do with their pourpier. Back in Roman times, Pliny oddly referred to it as ‘Gallic asparagus’, which suggests it was somewhat prized. And Gallic pourpier, after all, is what’s menacing my garden. But the French were no help; all they do is purée it for a soup, a velouté, like they do with everything else.

Next year the purslane will certainly be back, and we’ll be trying  a Mexican favourite, pork and purslane, or the Lebanese salad called fattoush, with lots of mint and lemon juice,  or this very intriguing Indonesian salad.

Finally, all you gardeners be advised that purslane has an evil twin. The false purslane is called ‘creeping spurge’. it is nearly as common and mildly toxic. Almost as soon as I learned this I noticed, yes indeed, we’ve got that in the garden too. But the leaves are smaller and flatter, and grow in pairs. It’s not hard at all to tell the difference

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