Persistence is a virtue. Unless, of course, you’re talking about weeds: The biological ability of some plants to ceaselessly re-create themselves has vexed gardeners for millennia. But the idea of a weed as a nuisance is a cultural construct, and a funny one at that—isn’t an edible plant that grows quickly and easily a good thing? If we’re talking about purslane, the answer is clear: Kind of.
“A weed is anything you don’t want in your garden,” says Warren Weber, owner of Star Route Farms. When Weber started his 40-acre farm in Bolinas, in 1974, he inherited woodland, a stream, and some purslane. The food world was different then—local, organic farming was in its infancy, and Americans viewed plants like purslane as intruders, not ingredients.
Weber was a pioneer in developing products that we’ve come to take for granted, like baby lettuces picked in whole heads. It took him several years, but eventually he was able to sell purslane to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets. The chefs he worked with were fas cinated by European cooking traditions, and purslane, with its old-world cachet and unique flavor, fit nicely into their menus.
A heat-loving, drought-resistant succulent with a voracious capacity to regenerate, purslane can reproduce by reseeding and also grows from buds. The problem with purslane on a farm is that, given room to grow, it will crowd more fragile crops. Tearing it out or turning it under doesn’t work, because unless every last root is removed, the weed will sprout from the bits left in the ground. Getting rid of purslane is no small undertaking, and that’s why, Weber explains, the weed is always organic: Conventional farms that use herbicides are the only ones able to fully eradicate it.
It may be a nuisance in the field, but in the kitchen, purslane is a delight. Its flavor can vary a bit—some is sweeter, some earthier—but it’s always a little salty and a little sour, with a delightful crunchy-soft texture. It’s also extremely high in nutrients, such as potassium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Purslane grows wild all over Europe and the Middle East and has played a role in those regions’ cuisines for thousands of years. It’s found in most parts of the U.S., and appreciation of its culinary charms, though nascent, is growing. The tips of young purslane plants are delightful in salads, dressed with a little lemon juice and olive oil. The stems and leaves of older, larger plants can be cooked briefly and stirred into soups or stews. For a warm-weather soup, try cooking purslane and spinach in vegetable stock for a minute or two, then blending and chilling the mixture. Purslane is also terrific with other summer staples, like tomatoes and cucumbers, and makes a refreshing accompaniment to fish and poultry.
Purslane has traditionally been considered peasant food—something that can be found wild and turned into dinner—but it’s starting to show up in tonier locales. Ron Siegel, chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, has been using it for years in his multicourse tasting menus. “I like its texture and juiciness,” he says. Recently, Siegel used purslane to garnish a dish that combined crab and English peas.
In the future, we might be hearing a lot less “get rid of it” and a lot more “get used to it”: Purslane will likely adapt to our changing climate better than we will. Thankfully, its charms include more than just tenacity.
Even so, the happy truce that Weber has brokered with purslane is not one he would have chosen. “If it had been up to me, I would never have planted it,” he says with a chuckle. That’s understandable—it is, after all, still a weed.