Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Purslane - Herb of the Week

This year my experimental Community Patch (a 20 x 20 garden I am documenting on another blog) has a number of vegetables and herbs in it.  One of the weeds it grows very easily is Purslane.  Purslane is actually considered a medicinal herb so as I pulled this plant out of the garden, carefully setting it aside to use at home, I realized it would make a great Herb of the week!

This week's Herb of the Week is Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)



What Is Purslane?

Purslane, a humble creeper with a centralized taproot, is a great example of a no-fuss annual that deserves more respect. You've probably been yanking it out of your lawn or flowerbeds for years without knowing what a treasure it can be in the right hands. The word purslane (or purslain) comes to us from the Latin, and was mentioned in “Naturalis Historia" (or Natural History) written by the botanist Pliny the Elder in around 79 A.D. 

If you keep houseplants, it looks like a poor man's, tiny jade plant with a horizontal habit. Like jade plant, it's a succulent with fleshy, oval leaves. Common purslane also boasts reddish stems that make it easy to identify, even when it's a bitty seedling. If you're watching for it in late winter or early, early spring, it looks perky when everything else in the garden but the crocus plants are still hunkered down and shivering (metaphorically speaking). That little bit of green can be more warming that a mug of hot chocolate on a cold, gloomy day.


Where Does it Come From?


Purslane isn't native to the U.S., but it has gone native here. It can grow in almost any soil, and even small, discarded pieces can reroot easily. Purslane sets seed quickly and reproduces very effectively (note the VERY). Along with dandelion, purslane could be the poster child for invasive, peskiness in locations where it isn't assiduously monitored and contained. This ought to put it into perspective: One purslane specimen can produce up to 50,000 seeds.

Botanists can trace the origins of purslane to India -- or possibly Africa. Common purslane is actually a popular vegetable in many parts of the world. It's used in stir fry, salads and can be added to veggie medleys the way you would add leafy greens like spinach. Folks think it tastes a bit like spinach, or at least a cross between spinach and watercress. You can find plenty of recipes that add a handful of purslane to traditional potato salad. It's also a welcome ingredient in Greek salad. It can be served raw, steamed, stir fried or pickled. What parts do people eat? That would usually be the tender leaves and stems.

To Grow

The modest purslane growing in backyard gardens across the U.S. isn't the only representative of the purslane family. There are cultivated culinary varieties that tend to have a more refined flavor (somewhat less sour), and a more upright growth habit. There are also ornamental purslane cultivars that remind me a little of begonias. Nearly 500 varieties of purslane have been identified to date. Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora) is in the same family as Purslane. Cultivated purslane is sometimes sold as var. sativa.  

Purslane salad
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Even though you won't have trouble cultivating it regardless of the condition of your garden, in a perfect world purslane prefers rich soil that drains well. It also likes a sunny exposure and a regular watering schedule.  If wanting it wild like mine, you will see it early in the garden as it really begins to take off as the soil temperatures soar in late spring and early summer.


To Use

The leaves are tender and fleshy, with a slight crunchy texture.  Purslane has been used both as a food and a medicine in the Mediterranian basin, India and China for thousands of years. It has a slightly sour, salty, lemony spinach flavor.  The leaves are the most commonly used, but the roots, flowers and seeds are also edible.  It is mucilagenous, so it is a great thickener for soups.  You can blanch the leaves if this is not to your liking.

Purslane doesn't have the aesthetic appeal of, say, arugula in a dinner salad, but it does have some pretty impressive things to recommend it just the same: 
  1. Purslane has one of the highest levels of omega 3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) of any plant tested so far.
  2. It contains high concentrations of vitamins C and E.
  3. It's a good source of potassium and magnesium.
  4. It contains high levels of the heart healthy antioxidant beta-carotene.

Some historical uses for purslane may be the result of wishful thinking, but it has been used in the past to treat colds, depression, gastrointestinal distress, insect bites, low sex drive and urinary tract infections.

Purslane chicken
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Popular with Elizabethans, you can cook the fleshy leaves in a similar manner to spinach and serve with a splash of vinegar.  You can add the leaves to salads.  You can blend it in equal parts with sorrel to make the traditional French soup Bonne femme.  It is a nice companion in stir fry too.  In Australia Aborigines used the seeds to make seed cakes.  You can also pickle it by brineing with wine or apple cider, garlic, chili and peppercorns.

*Special note: Purslane has an impressive nutritional pedigree, but it also contains high oxalate levels. If you have kidney problems, avoid adding purslane to your diet before discussing your plans with a medical professional. You may also want to check the latest research by visiting MedLine Plus (a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), WebMd or any of a number of other medical reference sites on the internet.

RECIPES

Purslane Soup

1/2 lb. purslane chopped
3 1/2 pounds butter
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 Tbls. cream

Cook purslane in butter in a covered pan.  Add stock, and potatoes.  Cook until potatoes are tender, then puree in a blender.  Sitr in cream, the garnish with fresh purslane.


Purslane Pickles

Use any size jar with a plastic lid. Narrow-necked bottles can be a problem. Fill your jar or bottle with freshly-harvested purslane cut into two-inches pieces. Leave a little space at the top. Fill the jar or bottle with room-temperature apple cider vinegar, being sure to completely cover the plant material. Cover. (Metal lids will corrode; do not use.) Label, including date. This is ready to use in six weeks; but will stay good for up to a year.  For added flavor add a garlic clove or 1 teaspoon of peppercorns.

To use: A tablespoon of purslane vinegar on cooked greens, beans, and salads adds wonderful flavor along with lots of minerals. You can also eat the pickled purslane right out of the bottle or add it to salads or beans.

Making Purslane Tincture

2 glass canning jars with lids
Enough fresh purslane to fill both jars
Enough 80- or 100-proof vodka to fill one jar
Knife
Cutting board
muslin or cheesecloth

Harvest the purslane. The purslane should be healthy, not wilted, rotted or yellowed. You need enough to fill both jars, as it will take up considerably less volume after you chop it. Sterilize the canning jars and lids by submerging them in boiling in water for two minutes. Set aside. Chop the purslane very finely--the smaller the pieces the better--and fill one of the jars to about 3/4 full. Add vodka to the jar full of purslane slowly, until the liquid just covers the herb. Gently shake to release air bubbles, then add more vodka if necessary to cover the chopped purslane. Seal the jar with the sterilized lid and shake vigorously. Place in a cool, dark place out of any kind of sunlight. Shake the jar every other day for at least one month. Two months is better. This period of storage and shaking is to allow the purslane's essential oils and medicinal compounds to dissolve into the alcohol. When the time period is up,  strain the liquid into the other, sterilized jar using muslin or cheesecloth, squeezing as much liquid from the purslane as possible. Cap the jar and store in a cool, dry, dark place.

Personal note - Because of the fleshy nature of purslane, I dry it on paper towel before I use it to make a tincture.  That cuts down on water in the mixture which can cause it to spoil.

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