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COLUMN: Discovering less-celebrated edible plants: Purslane great in salads, as thickening agent

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By Jeneen Wiche

I was among friends last week, discussing the virtues of okra. Some preferred to categorize the “slime” as a “thickening agent” while others insisted you needed to be a woodpecker to eat one.
The little ones are best, of course, but often they get too big to be edible. While okra is indeed a great thickening agent in gumbo and other quintessential southern dishes, there is another plant lurking in the garden that can do the same — and you can usually just find it growing along a path or in the flower garden.
I knew that purslane could be used in salads or soups, but had never made much of an effort to harvest and devise a kitchen plan until a few years ago when I had this fabulous stand of the weed in my kitchen garden after I pulled the old greens that bolted from the summer heat. It made perfect sense to let it grow and flourish because no lettuce seed would be germinating in the heat and I knew that this garden was free from any pesticides. So, the purslane established and since then I have turned young and old onto its culinary virtues.
My friend and author Nancy Gift describes purslane (Portulacca olereaca) as a “flat-growing plant with succulent, thick leaves, usually roughly an inch long and a thick stem. It grows best in dry places (sand, gravel) but also grows in gardens. Purslane leaves are deep green, slightly shiny, with small whitish hairs underneath, and the leaf edges and stems often have a purplish or reddish cast.”
It has a jade-like appearance for a weed. In a preview of Nancy’s book, “Good Weed, Bad Weed,” her section on purslane definitely represents the good side of the piquant green. Consider giving it a try; and look for her book if you are interested in learning more about the virtues of all living things.
I found a few recipes that complement the flavor of purslane that I can best describe as sour-piquant. Any variation on the theme will work so don’t bother sticking to the recipes exactly. You can also just add a few of its leaves to any leafy green salad.
My favorite purslane combo is a lightly dressed potato salad. Steam 1-inch pieces of cut potatoes for about 10 minutes and let cool in a large shallow bowl. Combine a half-cup of olive oil, 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a pinch of salt for your dressing. On top of the potatoes, layer rough-cut tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and pepper, purslane and chopped mint (more or less as you desire of anything). Drizzle the dressing, salt and pepper to taste and toss gently. One time I also added a few dollops of ricotta cheese, which gave the salad a slight creamy texture.  
One of the ways I also sold this salad to dinner guests over the years is to talk about the health virtues of this so-called weed: purslane is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, beta carotene, magnesium and potassium; so, therefore good for blood pressure and cholesterol. Why are we not eating more of this?
The next recipe is a simple tomato, cucumber, purslane, basil and yogurt salad. Think about marinated cucumbers with yogurt base instead of vinegar while adding a few more ingredients. Season it as you wish.
Purslane is an annual and will be knocked back at first frost so before this happens I will gather what I can find and make a fall gumbo. When purslane is cooked in a broth it actually acts as a thickening agent like our beloved “slimy” okra. This recipe came via Esther Heizer in Clarksville, Ind., to my father many years ago. Sauté a half-cup of chopped onion in about a tablespoon of butter; blend in about a tablespoon flour, add 1 cup of chopped tomatoes, 2 cups (or more) stock, about a half-pound cubed fish or chicken (or keep it vegetarian and add more vegetables), 2 cups purslane and a handful of chopped fresh basil. Let it all simmer until meat and or vegetables are tender.
I have also read that purslane is a good flavor complement to pork and lamb so this will be on the fall menu, when we harvest lambs from Swallow Rail Farm for the very first time.