A Wild Green Redeemed
Some Americans call it a weed, but in Turkey, purslane is a prize
My friend Ayfer Unsal, a feisty political journalist and passionate culinary sleuth, was beside herself. It was getting late in the day and we still hadn't found any decent purslane at her farmers' market in Gaziantep, in Southeast Anatolia, Turkey. She was about to give up when suddenly she spotted an old woman wheeling away a baby carriage filled with greens. "Quick! We must stop her!" Ayfer exclaimed. "She always has terrific herbs!" I followed as Ayfer dashed off, pushing her way through the crowd. When I caught up, she was in the process of buying a bundle of beautiful jade-colored, oval-leaved greens with purple stems. My friend was happy: she'd found the most important ingredient for a summer lamb and lentil stew called pirpirim asi--a beloved local specialty that's earthy and robust yet light and nourishing.
In America, grandmothers spoil their grandchildren with sweets; in Gaziantep, grandmothers use pirpirim asi. The story goes that Turkish cops will stop writing traffic tickets if the violator promises to bring them a freshly cooked pot. Purslane is the key to the stew's special flavor. Americans often refer to purslane as "that nuisance weed," the one that crops up in gardens, window boxes, sometimes even in the middle of gravel driveways. But to knowledgeable cooks, it is no nuisance! With its mild lemony taste and plump texture, it is a wonderful-tasting fresh green, of which there are precious few in late summer. If you don't have a garden and don't know where or how to forage for purslane, ask an organic grower at your local farmers' market to pick some for you. Perhaps you could even tempt the grower with a pot of stew.
Ayfer uses purslane in many different dishes, two of which I offer here. When tender and young, this green is delightful served raw in salads with tomatoes and cucumbers. When it's mature, the larger leaves and tender stems can be blanched and added to meat or vegetable dishes, making them light and delicious. Purslane is nutritious, too--it's a good source of antioxidants and has more heart-healthful omega-3 fatty acids than any other vegetable that's been studied.