Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) may not be at the top of your list when you shop for greens—perhaps you’ve never even heard of it. But there are good reasons to put it there. For one, it’s versatile, since you can eat it both raw and cooked. Second, it’s surprisingly nutritious. Third, it tastes pretty good.
Perhaps better known in America’s earlier days—Martha Washington’s family cookbook contained a pickled purslane recipe—this green vegetable with succulent little leaves has been regaining its popularity in recent years, thanks to its promotion by foodies, farmers markets, and fancy restaurants. It’s also said to have been Gandhi’s favorite food and is a staple food of the traditional Mediterranean diet, especially in Crete.
What's in a weed
Also called little hogweed, purslane is common throughout North America, India, and other parts of the world, where it’s often considered an invasive weed. Like many other plants, it has traditionally been used to treat many ailments, including sore gums, eye inflammation, skin diseases, and headaches. A study in Phytotherapy Research in 2010 found that purslane extracts could be beneficial for people with a chronic inflammatory condition that affects mucous membranes in the mouth (oral lichen planus), while a preliminary study in the International Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2011 found that freeze-dried purslane improved blood cholesterol levels. Some research suggests that the plant’s edible seeds may help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar. Lab studies have also identified antioxidant, anti-clotting, and other potentially beneficial properties.
Among green plants, purslane is one of the best sources of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat (though other plants foods, notably walnuts, have far more). One cup, cooked, has only 20 calories and 90 milligrams of calcium (a lot for a plant food, though by comparison milk has 300 milligrams per cup). It also supplies some vitamin C (sometimes quite high amounts), beta carotene, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and a little iron, along with phytochemicals (including flavonoids and terpenes), glutathione (a potent antioxidant), and pectin (a soluble fiber that helps lower cholesterol).
But like spinach, purslane contains oxalates, which can, in susceptible people, precipitate formation of kidney stones; cooking, particularly boiling, reduces the oxalates.
Purslane is similar to spinach but has a mildly sour and slightly lemony and peppery flavor. You can use the raw crispy leaves in salads and sandwiches (select young ones, if possible) or lightly steam or stir-fry them. Don’t overcook it, though—it gets slimy, like okra, due to its pectin. On the other hand, that mucilaginous aspect works well in soups and stews, where purslane acts as a thickener. You can also purée purslane, along with basil, olive oil, and pine nuts, to make pesto.
Other Great Greens
Here’s a trio of greens common in Asian cuisine. If you can’t find them in your regular market, Asian markets may carry them.