Gluten-Free Tuesday: Purslane


[Photograph: Gluten Free Girl]

It's amazing how many of my meals start on Twitter.

Ask a simple question about food—"What are you cooking tonight?"—then sit back and prepare yourself to read a flood of answers. After hearing about heirloom tomatoes, roasted peppers, and ahi tuna, I'm hungry. Usually, that night's dinner is inspired by a mish-mash of other people's answers, a little of this, a little of that. Sometimes, like the day that someone spoke with happy nostalgia about her childhood macaroni and cheese, I went right out and bought cheddar and gluten-free elbow pasta to make it happen for us too. Mostly, though, it's a mood that inspires me: charred this, seared that, a dab, a swirl. Or, just a ripe peach, juice squirting underneath my teeth to halfway across the table.

Other days, I'm inspired by people's photographs of food. Pickled watermlon rinds from the Alinea cookbook. Cherry pie with the juice oozing from the golden-brown crust. A slab of homemade bacon smoking in someone's backyard. One look at someone else's slow joy become food gets me in the kitchen again.

Rarely, however, does a food suggestion from Twitter get delivered to my door.

The other day, our friend Jon Rowley mentioned that his favorite summer salad involved onions, ripe tomatoes, and purslane. I wrote back: "I've never even eaten purslane before. That sounds intriguing."

A few days later, Jon showed up at a potluck at our house with peaches from Frog Hollow Farm, a large white onion, and fistfuls of purslane he had pulled from his garden. He stood in our kitchen, paying careful attention to the peach juice dripping from the chunks he cut with a paring knife, watching the salad become what he wanted. Normally, he uses ripe tomatoes, but the peaches were nearly perfect ripe, and Jon was persuaded.

You see, our friend Jon is a guru of flavor. As it says on his website, his " has been a life-long exploration and quest to improve the flavor, quality and understanding of fish, shellfish, fruits and vegetables." Jon helped bring Copper River salmon to Seattle, and thus the rest of the country. He adores oysters and hosts a competition every year to find the best wine to accompany fresh oysters. He helps to tell people how great Frog Hollow Farm peaches are because he went on a quest to find the best-tasting peach in the country, then he was determined to tell the rest of us about it too. He forages food and wanders the world trying to find food at the peak of perfect ripeness and enjoyment.

One of our favorite memories of last summer is of sitting with Jon and friends, waiting for him to measure each piece of peach with his brix meter, which measures the levels of dissolved sugars in the liquid of fruit. We all waited, patiently, until Jon measured the peach with the highest brix, and then we ate. One bite in quiet, then groans of happiness. This was just about the best bite of food I had ever eaten.

So, when Jon walks through the door with a food he likes, you grab a fork.

Most of us probably think of purslane as a weed. It's absent from grocery stores and even rare in farmers' markets. Jon says it grows so well in his garden that a spoonful of his soil in someone else's garden will grow purslane. Originally from India, purslane has a slightly sour taste behind all that green. Its leaves are slightly succulent, like small puffy cacti leaves, but without the spines. This gives a bite of purslane salad a bit of heft, something more than lettuce that disappears on the teeth.

It's also high in vitamin E and Omega 3s. Eat enough purslane and you can skip those fish oil caplets.

When I was a kid, a salad meant one taste experience: iceberg lettuce, one pale half of a tomato, ranch dressing (or Italian from a bottle), plus orange-colored croutons shaken out of a Pepperidge Farm box. I never knew that I would be eating purslane. (Back then, I probably would have thought it sounded like a poetic poison, like something that Ophelia would chant as she walked toward her death.) It took me cutting out gluten to realize that there was an entire world of food out there for me. Quickly, I learned, if it doesn't have gluten in it? I'm eating it.

That purslane salad was one of the best salads I have ever eaten. Purslane straight from the garden, chunks of sweet, juicy peach slightly squeezed to release its juices, sweet onion chunks, salt, pepper. When food is ripe and ready, beautiful on its own, we don't need much more than five ingredients to have a great meal.

About the author: Shauna James Ahern (aka Gluten-Free Girl) writes one of the most popular gluten-free cooking blogs out there and has a book of the same name.

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