Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 18 September 2014

Move over kale - there's a new weed in town to dig into

Before you pick up that weed killer, why not try nutritious, succulent, super-green purslane, urges Rozanne Stevens

Rozanne Stevens

Published 12/08/2014 | 02:30

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Rozanne Stevens
Try this traditional spicy South African vegetable dish as a salad or hotdog topping at barbecues

With the glorious summer weather we've been having, interspersed with a few downpours, many of us have been battling the flourishing weeds. But in the case of summer purslane (Portulaca oleracea), my new mantra is: 'eat it, don't weed it!' Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that a weed is simply a plant whose virtues we haven't yet discovered. And so it is with purslane.

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Summer purslane is best known as a pesky, invasive weed. Also commonly known as little hogweed, verdolaga, pigweed, common purslane, portulaca or pursley. Well don't be too hasty to get rid of it. This common weed has been proven to be super nutritious, with exponentially high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and A, iron, calcium, magnesium and a host of other nutrients. Plus, it is actually very tasty with a variety of culinary uses.

Purslane is native to India but has quickly spread across the continents, probably due to its hardy and resilient nature. According to Purdue University, it is thought to have been cultivated for the first time 4,000 years ago. It's a tough critter that needs little water and can grow in poor soil conditions. That's why you'll often see it growing in rocky outcrops and inhospitable-looking spots. A study by the University of Illinois has discovered that the seeds will remain viable in the soil for up to 40 years! It is encouraging as a food source for famine-torn countries.

There are several varieties of purslane and they vary in appearance with different leaf size, thickness, arrangement and pigmentation. It grows to 12-15 centimetres in height and spreads. The edible leaves are succulent, filled with a sticky, gooey fluid. The tender steams are also edible with the same salty and sour taste as the leaves. The flavour is similar to watercress and some say spinach too. Even the little yellow flower buds are edible and lovely in salads.

Essential fatty acids

Probably the most remarkable fact about purslane is that it is the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids out of any green leafy vegetables, according to the University of Texas. Its closest competitors are molokhia and stamnagathi, which are wild greens eaten in Crete. So purslane, especially for those people who cannot or choose not to eat oily fish such as salmon, is a wonderful vegan source of essential fatty acids. We can only get omega-3 fatty acids through food and they are essential for our overall health. They are proven to help lower cholesterol and help decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes and are also excellent for brain development, health and concentration.

Cancer fighting

Purslane contains up to 20 times more melatonin than any other fruit or vegetable. Melatonin is an antioxidant that is thought to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Purslane also contains two types of betalain pigments which are powerful antioxidants found to inhibit the mutation of cancer cells. Rich in vitamin A, which helps protect against lung and mouth cancers. The antioxidant content in purslane leaves is at its peak in young leaves until about eight weeks of growth.

Mineral rich

Like many green vegetables such as broccoli, purslane is rich in calcium. It also contains significant amounts of magnesium which aids the absorption of calcium to help build strong teeth, bones and muscle tissue. Calcium and magnesium are also vital to prevent muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome and may even help to get a good nights' sleep. Also rich in potassium which helps lower high blood pressure. One hundred grams of purslane will give you 25pc of your recommended daily iron intake.

An alphabet of vitamins

Michael Pollan has named purslane as two of the healthiest foods on the planet in his book In Defense of Food. Purslane provides one of the highest levels of vitamin A out of all the green leafy vegetables. Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant which is essential for good vision. It helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and skin. Purslane is rich in a number of B vitamins which help the body extract energy from food. Exceptionally high in vitamin C, with 100 grams serving providing 35pc of the daily requirement. Along with vitamin C, zinc helps maintain a healthy immune system.

Wrinkle defence

I'm listing this last as a benefit as I feel slightly vain writing about the wonderful properties of purslane that can help serious conditions, not just our pursuit for eternal youth. But the facts are that purslane is a unique plant that has a host of wrinkle-beating properties.

The omega-3 fatty acids help maintain the lipid barrier of skin cells, keeping them plump and youthful. High concentrations of vitamin C aid collagen production which maintains the 'scaffolding' of the skin and keeps it firm and prevents wrinkles. And the cocktail of antioxidants helps neutralise free radicals which cause skin damage.

Precautions

Although purslane is a wonderfully nutritious plant, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. It contains oxalic acid, also found in rhubarb, which can aggravate gout and kidney problems. It causes problems in people with known oxalate kidney stones as it can cause crystals and more stones.

So people who are prone to this condition are advised to avoid certain vegetables and also to drink plenty of water. Pregnant woman are advised to avoid purslane as it may cause uterine contractions.

If you are looking for some culinary inspiration, look to Greek cuisine where purslane is regarded as a wonder food dating back to Hippocrates, who recommended purslane for fevers and healing wounds.

Top tips and random facts

* In Malawi, purslane means 'buttocks of the chief's wife' - a possible reference to the plump leaves

* It is best to choose young, succulent leaves and stems when picking or buying purslane

* As it is a succulent, the leaves are juicy and springy. When added to salads, it gives an interesting texture and a tart, lemony flavour

* Purslane is excellent in juices, but a little goes a long way, much like using watercress. About 100ml per one litre of juice is plenty to get the health benefits

* Purslane is rich in pectin, so will help thicken sauces and stews

* In Mexico, it is cooked as a green until it wilts and softens. This helps reduce acidity

* Use purslane in sandwiches and salads instead of pickles, especially nice with ham

* As purslane originates in India, there are many mouth-watering recipes featuring it, especially South Indian cuisine. Try goni soppu curry, ragi cake and in soups

* Serve with seafood dishes instead of samphire, which has a similar texture. The lemony tang of purslane will complement fish perfectly

* Sauté chopped purslane with onion and chilli, then pour over beaten eggs and cook your scrambled eggs to your liking

* For a super nutritious lentil tomato sauce, fry onion, garlic and chopped purslane. Add a cup of red lentils, a tin of chopped tomatoes and two cups of stock. Simmer for 25 minutes until the lentils are tender

* To make pickled purslane, rinse and chop purslane stems into one-inch pieces. Pour into a large, sterilised jar and add 10 peppercorns, three sliced garlic cloves and cover with apple cider vinegar. Cover and keep in the refrigerator for at least two weeks before using

* For a Greek-style potato salad, add chopped purslane, diced red onion, cucumber, tomato and onion to boiled potatoes. Drizzle over a vinaigrette and add chopped mint, parsley or chervil

* Add zip to a classic tartar sauce with finely chopped purslane. Delicious with fish and chips

* If, like me, you love the saltiness of anchovies and capers on your pizza, add some chopped purslane for extra salty sourness

* For a twist on tzatziki, the famous Greek yoghurt dip, use chopped purslane instead of, or in addition to, the cucumber

* Purslane will be around until mid-autumn so why not get the kids out of the house and go foraging this weekend?

  • Recipes taken from Delish and Relish cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens.
  •  For healthy cookery courses and cook-books, log onto www.rozannestevens.com. Twitter: @RozanneStevens. YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/rozannestevens

Spicy chakalaka bean salad with wonder weed purslane

Makes one bowl

Chakalaka is a traditional dish from South Africa. A wonderfully spicy mixture of peppers, onions, tomatoes and other veggies seasoned with curry spices.

Served as a side dish with meat or the traditional polenta style 'pap' which is made from coarse maize meal. I've added some chopped purslane for extra veggie power. The recipe calls for hot curry powder but you can use medium curry powder if this is too spicy for you. I love this served on top of a 'boerewors' roll which is a traditional South African sausage. But any good quality sausage in a roll with chakalaka will be a super-duper hotdog.


Ingredients

• tablespoon sunflower oil

• 2 red peppers, sliced

• 100g purslane leaves, chopped

• 1 large red onion, sliced

• 1 head cauliflower, broken into florets

• 2 lemons

• 1 tablespoon light brown sugar

• 1 tablespoon strong curry powder

• 5 large tomatoes, roughly chopped

• 1 x 400g tin cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

• 1 carrot, grated

• Salt and pepper

• 4 tablespoons chopped coriander

Method

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Cook the peppers, purslane and onion for about 15 minutes, until soft.

Steam the cauliflower florets for 3 minutes, until they're just tender but still have a bite. Refresh under cold water and leave in a colander to drain. Squeeze over the juice of 1 lemon and coat well with the juice.

Add the sugar and curry powder to the peppers, purslane and onion. Stir well to dissolve the sugar. Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer on a low heat for 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are pulpy and saucy. Mix through the beans, cauliflower and grated carrot.

Taste and season well with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Transfer to a large bowl and garnish with fresh coriander.

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