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IN SEASON

Purslane Is Both Pesky Weed, Culinary Delight

August 20, 1992|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

One person's weed is another's horticultural treasure--or so it seems for purslane.

Although most gardeners consider the ever-expanding succulent plant a pest, a few see in it a culinary delight. Purslane possesses characteristics similar to okras, although those accustomed to cooking with the wild plant prefer to stress the spinach-like texture and flavor of the leaves. Some varieties of purslane have been hybridized as landscape plants to produce large blooms.

The plant grows just like lettuce, especially in hot weather.

To Mexican consumers, the plant's crisp and juicy leaves are a summer treat, while the French put it to myriad gastronomic uses. In Spanish, the plant is known as verdolaga; in French it is called pourpier.

Stephen Facciola's book, "Cornucopia: A Sourcebook of Edible Plants," describes purslane as a member of the Portulacaceae family, which comes in wild and cultivated varieties.

"In Tijuana, you can find a cultivated form of verdolaga, " said Facciola. "The leaves are larger because they have been watered and fertilized."

He found one of his favorite varieties in San Franciso's Golden Gate Park, even bringing back a few "weeds" to plant in his garden in Vista. Another popular variety is the cultivated Golden, or Pourpier Dore, an upright and large-leafed purslane with a yellowish tinge.

Purslane is sometimes confused with the more elegant Montia perfoliata, or Winter Purslane, known commonly as Miner's Lettuce. The young, succulent leaves of Miner's Lettuce, much like the Golden, have made the leap into chic salad bowls and are considered a gourmet item in some circles. Facciola said that both the leaves and flowers of the Miner's Lettuce are good to add to meslun, or baby greens mix.

One grower who delights in finding patches of verdolaga in her fields is Andrea Peterson of Peterson and Pio Quality Produce in Fallbrook. As well as supplying it by the boxful to customers, she recently began incorporating verdolaga into her family's diet.

"We stopped weeding it out because it comes up in our fields luxuriantly at certain times of year," said Peterson. "Farm workers were coming from miles around to get some of it. In Mexico, they call it "green meat."

Peterson, a certified organic grower, said she appreciates the dark-leaved succulent in part for its easy style. "We love it even as a weed because it's so easy to pull out," she said. Patches of this plump-looking watercress hug the tidy rows of drip-irrigated beans and one pull on a water-logged verdolaga plant brings with it literally pounds of soft, green tentacles.

Another farm that has verdolaga mixed in with other crops is Nature's Nursery in Vista.

Brent England, a recent emigre from Laguna Beach, surveys his four acres of farmland and reflects on his reason for moving to this pristine valley a stone's throw from Guajome Lake. "Natural space is important to me," said the barefooted farmer, who operates Nature's Nursery with his partner, Larry Feiler.

"We're not regimented farmers," England said. "We like to give freedom to our plants."

Rows of corn, patches of pumpkin, and a small herb garden cover most of the tilled soil. No pesticides are used and plants are allowed to mingle. Newly-planted cucumbers thrive in the shade of tightly-planted cornstalks that will be used as trellises.

Between rows of peppers and tomatoes, large patches of volunteer verdolaga spread.

"It comes up wild thanks to the birds who eat the seeds," England said. "It's very hardy, and we see it through summer and fall. It's 80% water."

Purslane is available in season at farmer's markets, or Mexican markets.

Cut off woody steams, wash and dry the leaves, and cook much as you would spinach or Swiss chard. Purslane's slightly citrusy aftertaste adds flavor to gumbo or minestrone soup. A common Mexican recipe is to saute it with onions and simmer it in a fresh tomato sauce, or add it to pork stew. Verdolaga or purslane is also good raw in salads. The younger the plant, the more flavorful the leaves.

Peterson and Pio Quality Produce, Fallbrook. Purslane, 50 cents a bunch at Vista Farmer's Market.

Nature's Nursery, 2421 Majella Road, Vista, CA 92084. (619) 630-1404. Stand hours: Wednesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Purslane, 75 cents a bunch at stand, and at Vista farmer's market. On Saturday, Aug. 29, an open house at the nursery will feature tours and refreshments.

Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants, by Stephen Facciola. Kampong Publications, 1870 Sunrise Drive, Vista CA 92084.

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