In the summer on the Blue Zone island of Ikaria, where we live, I become a Greek island cook and gardener, my patience and ingenuity put to the test by an overflow of squashes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and...weeds.
Among them is purslane, which runs rampant but ends up invariably in either my salad bowl or stew pot.
The Greeks call this prolific weed glistrida, which means slippery, and say that it turns you into a chatterbox or makes your tongue slip. I have never been able to find anything but empirical proof of that, mainly in my own urges to sing its praises. Purslane is no doubt a weed of distinction.
Ironically, it's also a weed that many Americans have seen a million times, popping up out of their driveway or in the backyard. Most, unwittingly, give it a go with pesticide not knowing what it is. Last summer, one of our cooking school guests went back home to Minnesota and sent me an email explaining just that. It was in his driveway, which he was about to weed, until he recognized the plant we'd had in a few salads and cooked dishes during the week he and his wife and kids spent with us on the island.
Purslane is one of the healthiest things we can eat and one of the super foods that Ikarians consider to be a secret to their legendary longevity. Its therapeutic values apparently have been known for eons. Pliny the Elder, one of the earliest chroniclers of plants, called it the guardian against all ills. Purslane is high in vitamins A and C, iron, phosphorus and calcium, and it is one of the richest plant sources of Omega-3 fatty acids and is a veritable antioxidant bombshell. In Greek and Mediterranean folk pharmacopoeia it has been used to treat headaches, stomach pains, ulcers, and eye ailments.
For gardeners, it is a weed that serves a higher purpose: Its deep roots help bring nutrients to the top soil, its juice leaves and stems provide moisture, and its tenacity keeps other, peskier, weeds at bay.
For me, it's an emblem of the best of Greek cooking, a member of the considerable range of wild greens, which are really nothing more than edible weeds, that Greeks call horta.
Most wild greens grow in Greece when it rains, between November and May; purslane, together with amaranth and black nightshade (from which strychnine is derived but which is delicious and safe before it flowers) is a summer green, readily available for the plucking from June to September.
Greek cooks only avoid purslane when it starts to go to seed, producing tiny, black poppy-like seeds and growing large and tough in the process. But the array of dishes in the regional kitchen attests to the ingenuity of once poor country cooks when it comes to putting this green to good use. In many Aegean Island kitchens, purslane is stewed with zucchini and amaranth and plenty of olive oil or cooked in tomato sauce with lots of onions and garlic. One delicious recipe, popular among the Greeks from Istanbul who came back as refugees almost a hundred years ago, calls for cooking it with onions, garlic and thick Greek yogurt. In salads, from the classic Greek village salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, onions and olive oil) to other, more diverse summer salads, it is a lovely addition that adds volume, crunch, and a mild, quenching acidity. I have learned to pair it with cucumbers, green olives, and red wine vinegar, a dish I co-opted from a local cook, Popi Karimanli, on my native island, Ikaria.
Maybe the best thing of all about purslane is how easy it is to procure gratis so long as you recognize it in fields and gardens, an easy enough thing to do since its leaves are deep green and fleshy, its stalks relatively thick and flexible. It looks like a succulent. You probably have it growing in your own backyard.
Here are a two of my favorite Greek summer recipes with this wonderful weed.
Ikarian Purslane and Olive Salad
From Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die (Rodale, Fall 2014)
1 pound / 450 g purslane
3 to 4 large garlic cloves
1 large, seedless cucumber
1 cup/about 200 g small green olives, rinsed and drained
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup/120 ml extra-virgin Greek olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Wash the purslane and spin- dry the purslane. Trim away any tough stems. Coarsely chop the purslane and transfer to a salad bowl.
Crush the garlic with the side of a large chef's knife and scrape, together along with its juices, into the salad bowl. Peel and coarsely chop the cucumber. Remove the seeds pits from the olives and quarter lengthwise. Finely chop the parsley. Put all the ingredients in the salad bowl. Pour in the olive oil, vinegar, and salt to taste. Toss and let sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Tzatziki (Greek Yogurt Dip) with Purslane, Cucumbers and Herbs
From The Country Cooking of Greece, Chronicle Books, Fall 2012
Serves 4 to 6
3 cups/about 12 oz. purslane
6 small organic cucumbers, peeled, seeded and shredded
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro/fresh coriander
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups/360 ml Greek yogurt
1/4 cup/60 ml extra-virgin Greek olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat side of a knife
2 tsp. ground coriander
Sea salt and ground pepper
Wash the purslane, spin dry, and trim away any tough stems. Transfer to a salad bowl. Wring the liquid out of the shredded cucumber by gathering it up with your hands, one small bunch at a time, and squeezing it between your palms. Transfer to the bowl and add the herbs.
Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, garlic, and coriander and season with salt. Add the yogurt mixture to the vegetables and mix well. Season with pepper and additional salt if needed. Serve.