Like many proud Sicilian men of a certain generation, my maternal grandfather was a bit suspicious and more than a bit arrogant. He’d have taken one look at my veggie-packed pizza and said, “Why-a you put all-a dat crrrap on-a di peetza? Dayz-a weeds” My paternal grandmother, on the other hand would’ve been thrilled to see all that fluffy purslane put to good use. She, less affluent (and much less suspicious) than my grandfather, was a keen urban forager whose skills would’ve impressed even Fredrik Berselius of Aska. Same impulse (deliciousness), same motivation (it’s there and it’s free), yet totally different audiences (penniless diners paying complements vs. well-to-do diners paying big bucks). She picked dandelions and wild onions from secret patches near her home in Bensonhurst, mulberries from trees on her block and crabapples from our back yard when she came to visit. I can only imagine how disappointed she was with our beautiful, perfectly manicured suburban lawn–great sitting but not great eating.
I discovered purslane on my roof-top garden years and years ago and had no idea that it was edible until I came across a Turkish recipe from Paula Wolfert. Talk about disappointment! I still kick myself for having weeded and tossed out those delicious and highly nutritious greens for all those years! Luckily, it’s available at farmers’ markets and still dirt cheap. I wonder when it’ll go the way of skirt steak, monk fish and chicken wings.
Purslane, a.k.a. portulaca oleracea grows wild in the States but is cultivated just about every where else. This succulent plant figures prominently in many cultures, especially hot, dry climates like India and Iran because it’s so hardy and nutritionally dense. These greens are true nutritional heavy-hitters. They’re high in omega 3 fatty acids (the largest source per gram than any other plant) vitamins A, B, C and E, beta carotene, calcium, folate and potassium. These low-growing plants have smooth, red stems and spatula-shaped leaves that grow in groups of five. A tiny yellow flower sits in the center of the leaf cluster and only opens during the hottest time of day, closing up when the sun goes down. The seed pod contains loads of super-tiny black seeds like poppy seeds but half the size or less. Australian Aborigines would grind these seeds into flour to make bush bread–a dense loaf cooked over coals. It’s hard to imagine how many seeds went into a single loaf. Just thinking about that is too much work for me. I’d rather just eat the leaves and stems and buy a nice loaf of bread from Bien Cuit.
My favorite ways to use purslane are in salads (it has a baby spinach-like texture and flavor) in soups and stews (it thickens the liquid much like okra or file powder) but my favorite is dressed with lemon juice and olive oil on top of a hot-off-the-grill pizza. Sometimes I’ll sauté it first, but often I’ll just mound it on the pizza and allow the ambient heat to gently wilt the greens. It makes eating pizza down-right virtuous!
GRILLED PIZZA WITH PURSLANE, GOAT CHEESE AND OLIVES
1 pound pizza dough, divided into 4ths
Oil for brushing and drizzling
1 large red onion, cut into slivers
4 garlic scapes, or scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup pitted green olives, halved
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
4 cups purslane, baby arugula or whatever looks good at the market
1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Light a grill. Clean and oil the grates. On an oiled board, stretch the dough out to 8-inch rounds and brush generously with oil. Let sit for 10 minutes.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion, garlic scapes (or scallions) and rosemary, season with salt and pepper and cook on moderate heat until just softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add the olives.
- Carefully drape the dough, working with one piece at a time, over the grates and season lightly with salt. Cook over moderately high heat just until lightly charred and set on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes.. Flip the pizzas and quickly sprinkle on the onion, garlic scapes, olives and goat cheese, cover the grill and cook over moderate heat until the bottom is nicely charred and the dough is cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. It may be necessary to move your pizzas around the grill if you have hot spots.
- Toss the greens with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons oil, season with salt and pepper and mound on top. Let sit until barely wilted. Cut into wedges and serve.