In a world increasingly governed by our desire to eat more nutritiously, live more healthfully, and consume more responsibly, deciding what’s for dinner can be a tricky endeavor indeed. Health food trends, like fashion trends, rise and fall at increasing speeds, so that yesterday’s humble leaf becomes today’s kingly kale, seemingly overnight.
We wait for the media to tell us what the next “it” ingredient shall be, and grudgingly accept that, whatever ‘it’ is, it will likely be costly. And we neglect to look to the ultimate source of nutritional wisdom — nature itself — in our search. More importantly, we associate edible food with grocery store shelves and plastic packaging. We have forgotten, collectively, that real food grows in the ground, requiring no nutritional labels or USDA approvals.
There are, of course, dangers associated with consuming straight from the earth. Some plants are toxic, others hallucinogenic (this particular trait being obviously desirable to some, though likely not when searching for one’s breakfast), and we must approach foraging, as with farming or any other life skill, armed with at least some basic knowledge — knowledge which mothers and fathers used to pass on to sons and daughters, that duty now long-forgotten.
Fortunately, many health food warriors and sustainability advocates are doing some of the work for us, searching their own fields and backyards for solutions to the many crises plaguing the food system today — GMOs, factory farming, and too-long supply chains, to name a few — and empowering us, in the process, to do the same. Kale and spinach are delightful, to be sure, but the human body, just like the human appetite, thrives best when offered a variety of foods, each working together to fill in the nutritional gaps of the other.
Many options exist for those looking to diversify their plates (and their palates), but I wish to highlight just one exciting plant which has been garnering some much-deserved attention recently.
Purslane (portulaca oleracea) — also known as duckweed, fatweed, parsley, pussley, verdolagas, and wild portulaca — plagues gardeners around the world, being a persistent and hardy ‘weed’ species which can grow anywhere that has at least a two-month growing season. Once established, it can be difficult to remove, making its recent renaissance as a desirable ingredient a blessing in disguise.
It originated in Persia and India and has since spread to the rest of the world, with many cultures still using it in dishes regularly. In a beautiful exploration of purslane’s many culinary traditions, New York Timeswriter Marlena Spieler describes some of the ways it is used around the world today:
In Mexico and California, verdolaga is eaten with pork and tomatillos; at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Steve Sando, owner of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, tucks a few whole stems into his big fat carnitas and tomatillo tamal. Farmers in Provence sell pourpier in wild mesclun. In Greece, little old ladies forage from field to field hunting glistrida, and in Turkey semizotu is mixed with garlicky yogurt and chopped into fetching salads with ripe tomatoes. In Galilee I was told that ”regelah” was delicious in salads — regelah being Hebrew for foot, since purslane is a plant typically found right at your feet.
Described as tangy and bright, purslane leaves make a welcome addition to many refreshing summer meals, like salads and sandwiches, and can also be steamed, stir-fried, or stewed. It also makes a wonderful replacement for traditional greens in pesto, with its high water content replacing much of the oil usually necessary in this sauce.
Useful and tasty it might be, but for something to compete with the likes of kale and the now-ubiquitous collard greens, a vegetable had better pack an impressive nutritional wallop. And purslane does not disappoint. Research has shown it to be remarkably high in antioxidants, featuring two different types of betalain alkaloid pigments (the reddish beta-cyanis and the yellowish beta-zanthins), both of which double as anti-mutagens as well.
Purslane also contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, with 100 grams of the fresh leaves providing about 350 mg of alpha-linolenic acid. This makes it an excellent choice for vegans and vegetarians, whose usual recourse in the absence of fish in their diet is most often supplementation. Purslane’s unusually high Omega 3 content was studied extensively in a 1896 New England Journal of Medicine article titled “Purslane: A Terrestrial Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”
Purslane also boasts significant amounts of fibre, vitamins (A, B, C), and minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese). Perhaps more impressive still is its content of melatonin — the hormone responsible for regulating our body clock and sleep cycle — which, as Dr. Bahram Tadayyon notes in his comprehensive book The Miracle of Vegetables: The Scientific Facts About Nuritional Properties and Medicinal Values of Vegetables, is “several-fold [higher] than any other vegetable or fruit.” Purslane therefore can be consumed in order to promote a more restful sleep.