If you’ve had any decent monsoon rain by now, you may have a vitamin powerhouse coming up in your yard. Purslane, also called verdolagas, grows in many Southwest backyards in the summer. It prefers rich, recently turned soils so look for it under your rose bushes or in a flower garden. It has small fleshly leaves about the size of a fingernail, pinkish stems, and grows close to the ground. I have only a small patch this year where a small rain barrel spilled over. There should be more, but rains have been skimpy in our part of downtown Tucson.
It’s sad but true that right now people are out in their yards pulling these plants out and tossing them in the garbage (or compost for the more enlightened). They should be tossing them in the wok (see recipe below.) Purslane provides six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene than carrots. It’s also rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus. One cup of cooked purslane has 25 milligrams (20 percent of the recommended daily intake) of vitamin C.
Especially important to those of us eating a modern diet, purslane is very high in an essential omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3s are a class of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. Your body cannot manufacture essential fatty acids, so you must get them from food. Certain fibers also help in controlling blood sugar.
Sometimes all this talk of nutrition can turn people off — you might be saying “OK, but what does it taste like?” Delicious, actually. There are lots of ways to use purslane. The mild lemony flavor goes with everything. Purslane can be eaten raw chopped in salads or sautéed . Add it to a stew. Or toss it in the blender when making a green smoothie and it will add body as well as vitamins.
There’s something else, too. Something beyond just the vitamins that come from eating plants from your own yard. It’s a connection to the land you live on, the seasonal treat that Mother Nature has provided. By eating with the season, you become more than a mere spectator to life’s cycle. You think about these tiny seeds that wait for the rain, then manage to live as the sun beats down with 100-degree fury. And there’s the connection to past generations of people who lived here and ate these plants–a connection that broccoli will never give you.
My friend Roni Rivera-Ashford taught me to put a bowl under the colander and catch the water you use to rinse the purslane. You will find lots of very tiny black seeds in the water. Botanists tell us that a single purslane plant can produce up to 200,000 seeds. Pour that water with the seeds on a potted plant and you’ll have purslane next year.
Since it’s free and (usually) abundant, why not try some? Here’s the classic prepartion cooked up in Mexican kitchens every summer.
To prepare the purslane, first chop and sauté some onion and garlic in a little oil. When the onion is translucent, add the purslane.
Next, toss in some chopped fresh tomatoes.
At this point you can eat it, maybe with a little cheese on top. Or to make a heartier meal, saute some small bits of chicken. Now you’ve got a great side dish. Or how about filling for some enchiladas.
My favorite is tostadas. Yum!
Interested in more ideas for using the wild foods of the Southwest? Check out my books Cooking the Wild Southwest where you’ll find recipes for 23 delicious wild plants, and The Prickly Pear Cookbook with lots of recipes for both the prickly pear fruit and pads. Here’s a little video with ideas for other local wild plants to add novelty and nutrition to your diet.