On a recent trip to Borough Market I came across an old friend I haven’t seen since my New York days, where many happy hours were spent wandering around Union Square Greenmarket, marvelling at the abundance of colourful, locally grown produce - Purslane. A healthy bundle was selling for half the price of a handful of basil. It was my best purchase of the day.
I've often wondered why purslane is not more widely available here; in London it rarely appears on restaurant menus, despite the current trend for unusual leaves and foraged foods. Yet the plant is jam packed with vitamins and minerals, as well as a surprisingly high amount of Omega 3 fatty acids, more than any other leafy vegetable. Move over mackerel? Well not quite - oily fish have four times as much of the same fatty acids - but still impressive.
Common purslane was once a regular feature of medieval kitchen gardens, The earliest known salad recipe, written around 1390, calls for purslane, along with parsley, sage, onions, borage, fennel, cress and rosemary. These days it can still be found growing wild in the British Isles, although according to forager Miles Irving it may be relatively scarce due to a dislike of frost. In the right conditions, a cosy vegetable garden for instance, it grows like a weed. You can eat every bit of it - stalks, flowers, leaves and seeds.
Its emerald leaves are reminiscent of lambs lettuce, but these are juicy, almost fleshy, rather than paper thin. There’s a slight slimy texture to them, like okra, which disappears when licked with olive oil, blending into a rich mouthfeel. I think it tastes like a cross between spinach, sorrel and aloe vera. Every bite is juicy and crunchy, with a light astringency that feels cleansing. Eating lots can give you that furry sensation on the back of your teeth you get sometimes from eating spinach.
I love purslane simply tossed with some lively, fruity olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. It's great with a lovely bit of lamb, or fish, or a whole load of tomatoes, off the top of my head. We tossed a big handful into a pan sizzling with olive oil, garlic, chilli and just cooked prawns and it was delicious - half raw, half wilted and tart enough to replace the lemon juice we would normally squeeze over.
Keep an eye out for purslane for sale, or even growing in a garden near you. If you find any please let me know!
I hope this will end up as a collection of recipes, restaurants and anything else that celebrates the wonderful diversity of foods and how we prepare and eat them. Some ingredients may seem unusual to you, but I love learning about new cooking techniques and tasting new foods. I am fascinated by the way in which different cultures have made their food into something more than just fuel. This is a reflection of what excited me at that time and season. Above all it is a record of where I was and what was eaten...and how to bring those memories back again.