Say hello to Tama Matsuoka Wong, a corporate lawyer turned professional forager who supplies wild plants to chefs in the New York City area, including Restaurant Daniel, Bar Pleiades, ACME, Gramercy Tavern, Il Buco Alimentari, Marc Forgione and others. She also runs educational workshops and events around the country to teach people about the deliciousness of so-called "weeds." She is the co-author of Foraged Flavor, a James Beard Award-nominated field guide-cookbook. She forages in her own backyard in Hunterdon County, New Jersey and collaborates with organic farmers and conservation groups to help steward the properties they manage. She'll be stopping by here occasionally to share her experiences with wild foods.
It's been hot as heck on the East Coast this summer, and no one wants to step foot outside. My neighbors can't be bothered to even look at their vegetable gardens, which lie untended and weedy. But I love the abundance of weeds that thrive in the heat of summer, and I'm up at 5:30 a.m. when the air is still cool with a balmy breeze to make my way to a nearby farm.
The farmer I work with tilled the ground a month ago, and the area that had been turned over first spent weeks cracked and barren in the baking sun. But now the ground is slowly becoming covered with creeping plants, the first ones to heal the earth. In any plant community, there are often dominant plants, and the primary "weed" over this patch of ground is purslane.
Every time I see this sea of purslane I have to smile. Purslane is fresh and crunchy, with a tang and a faint citrus undertone that makes me want to add it to the sandwich I brought with me to the field. Unlike other plants that wilt in the heat, purslane almost glistens as the heat rises under the midday sun.
Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is an ancient plant originally from Persia and now found through much of the temperate world. It has been used for thousands of years as a food source, and is now being rediscovered as the plant with the highest source of Omega-3. Purslane is also packed with vitamins E, C and other nutrients. I pop a couple purslane tips in my mouth right there in the field and think of it as my own free blast of vitamins.
Purslane grows readily as a low sprawling weed in planters, vegetable gardens, farm rows, the edges of lawns, and even in the crack of a sidewalk. It is distinctly recognizable, with leaves that are smooth and succulent, like a cactus without any thorns. Each leaf is shaped like a little oar, and tend to cluster together at the tips of a thicker stem that is sometimes faintly reddish. (Some people think that purslane could be confused with the toxic spotted spurge. Although they are both low sprawling plants, spurge does not have a succulent quality to its leaf, and spotted spurge also has a milky sap and purslane does not.)
The leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and seeds of purslane are all edible. The most sought after part are the younger leaves, when they display a slight shine, and, importantly, a texture that is pliant and not leathery. Usually this means selecting the top two-to-three inch "tips" of the plant when the leaf clusters are still young and crunchy. The size of the leaves average less than an inch long, but with the heat, some may shoot out, so even two-inch leaves can be soft, crunchy, and taste fresh with a little lemony zing at the end. Pinch or clip off the tips in a cluster at the end—by doing this, the plant will continue to grow from the inside out, forming concentric circles with the youngest growth in the center.
If you don't have a backyard or garden planter, you can find purslane at numerous farmers markets or CSAs, although it is more common to find the tips, stems and all for sale. In some hotter climates, you can find purslane in the winter farmers markets.
To store purslane, right after picking, pop it in a plastic bag and put it straight in to the refrigerator or a cooler bag. It will keep fresh in the refrigerator for a week or more. Don't wash it until just before you are ready to eat.
Purslane is so versatile that it truly can be one of those vegetables that goes with any cuisine. In addition to the flavor, it's crunchy texture adds a pleasant note to many dishes. (I have heard that some people find it "mucilagneous," and I can only guess that they may be picking very mature plants as I have never found it so.)
Stuff some raw purslane tips in to southeast Asian lettuce wraps, or skip the lettuce altogether and showcase purslane in a Provencal-style salad with olives and feta cheese, or on top of your your chicken sandwich or burger. Purslane is also delicious paired with cucumber and mint, or quickly blanched and then stir-fried with ginger, chili and a splash of rice vinegar. Or try Kenji's simple recipe for pickled purslane (though I personally add less salt), which preserves the wild plant's flavor for weeks to come.