Mexicans have foraged verdolagas (purslane, or Portulaca oleracea), a native of India and Persia, for centuries, and it remains a favorite green from Tijuana to Cancun. Because the annual plant isn’t a bit fussy about a sprout site, and because it’s a succulent, it germinates easily from a cutting or seed and needs little water once started.
Wild purslane is thrilled with most any sunny spot, where it spreads flat on the ground quickly from a single root and multiplies like chickenpox in kindergarten after it goes to seed. Sadly it’s less cherished in the U.S., where the plant is best known as a common weed and a gardener’s biggest nightmare. Farm-grown purslane, unlike in the wild, grows vertically, and can reach knee high for easy harvesting.
Green with a red blush on some of the 40 cultivated varieties, its edible ½-inch to 2-inch long leaves look like delicate baby jade plants. Larger leaves and stems are crunchy with a mouth feel like cactus paddles and okra but more delicate, with a tangy, slightly salty citrus-pepper bite.
With purslane, flavor depends on when it’s picked
In the book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan calls purslane one of the most nutritious plants on earth. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, on par with some fish. When the plant is thirsty, it switches to photosynthesis: At night, its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which converts into malic acid, and in daylight, the acid transforms into glucose. Purslane has 10 times the acid content in the morning vs. when it’s picked in the afternoon, so expect it to be slightly sour in breakfast quesadillas and almost sweet at dinner.
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Mexicans cherish the plant’s citrus taste and look forward to the warm summer months when it is widely available. Tiny, delicate half-inch leaves are perfect for salads and to tuck into sandwiches; thick, larger leaves and thick stems cut into pieces are best for a more toothsome bite in cooked dishes, especially soups and rustic stews, where their natural pectin is appreciated for thickening qualities.
I suggest looking for luscious cultivated bunches at a greengrocer, Mexican market or farmers market rather than scrounging around town hunting for miserly sidewalk shoots. Unless you’re a fan of foraging, you probably won’t have a clue what time of day the store-bought purslane was picked; even so, its juicy leaf texture will woo you back for more.
Once picked or purchased, keep purslane fresh for another day or two in a container out of the sun with cut stems in a few inches of fresh water. Most people cut off and discard the thickest, chewy stem bottoms and use only delicate stem tops and leaves in recipes.
As in other Mexican soups and sauces, flavor and texture are everything. This soup is perfect for the family or when friends stop by; if fussy grandmothers are invited to a special-occasion dinner, strain the finished soup for a traditionally upscale smooth liquid.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup chopped white onion
- 2 to 2½ cups scraped kernels from 3 ears summer sweet corn
- 3 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash, about 6 inches each
- 3 cups purslane leaves with delicate stems, 2 tablespoons of the tiniest half-inch leaves reserved for garnish
- 2 large handfuls squash blossoms, 6 reserved for garnish
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth at room temperature
- ⅓ cup grated Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring every few minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels, stir and continue cooking 5 minutes. Cut the squash in quarters lengthwise and then into half-inch slices. Scoop into the pot and stir, cooking another 5 minutes.
- Pull off leaves and delicate stems from the thick purslane stems, enough to have about 3 cups. Add them to the pot and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer gently 5 minutes.
- Remove the five sharp green sepals at the base of each squash blossom. Snap off the stems from six of the prettiest blossoms and reserve for garnish. Slide the other blossoms and stems into the pot. Cook, stirring for a minute, and then turn off the heat.
- Ladle half the hot vegetables into a blender or processor. Pour in 1 cup broth. With the air vent open, purée 30 seconds and pour into the used mixing bowl. Ladle the remaining hot vegetables into the blender with another cup of broth. Purée 30 seconds, but this time pour it into the cooking pot. Scrape the purée from the bowl into the pot with a rubber spatula. Pour in the remaining broth. Bring to a fast boil (big bubbles you can’t stir down), and then lower the heat to a bare simmer for 2 minutes.
- Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish each with one of the reserved squash blossoms in the center, a sprinkle of grated cheese, some tiny purslane leaves and a small dollop of crema.
Main photo: Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky