Flash in the Pan 

What would Gandhi eat?

There’s a bed in my garden planted with peppers and basil, which seem to play well together. Now there’s a third party, uninvited but welcome, filling the gaps between what I planted. A noxious weed capable of producing 50,000 seeds per plant—each seed capable of germinating after as long as 30 years in the soil—this plant could have a more intimidating name than purslane. But it was named long before anyone realized that purslane could possibly be in the way.

Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is a succulent, somewhat like a jade plant, with a sour and sweet taste that gets sweeter over the course of a hot day and mellows when cooked.

For centuries, Cretans have ground purslane’s numerous seeds into flour for bread, pickled the stems and eaten the leaves in salads drizzled with olive oil. Russians dry it for the long winters, Malaysians dip it in chili paste, Lebanese use it to add tang to their tabbouleh, Mexicans put it in their huevos, and fancy chefs add purslane to their cucumber yogurt salads.

Long hailed as a treatment for many ailments, purslane is exceptionally high in omega-3 fatty acids—more so than any other leafy plant—as well as beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A and C.

When a farmer gives me a suggestion for a story idea, it’s usually about something they have an overabundance of, like zucchini, or radishes. Thus when my friend Doug Baty, of Wild Plum Farm in Dixon, suggested I write about purslane, I was stunned. When I told him I didn’t know much about purslane but I’d do a Google search, it was Doug’s turn to be stunned. Poor guy, idealistic to the core, at first he thought I was joking, and that to use the Internet to research my earthy food column was somehow contradictory.

Well, maybe this means I’m getting big enough to contradict myself. If so, it isn’t from eating purslane, which, as I noticed on several of the 33,000 hits for “purslane recipe,” contains only 15 calories per hundred grams. Of course those calorie counters probably weren’t counting on my frying the purslane in bacon grease.

Another interesting factoid I gleaned, provided by food writer Marlena Spieler, is that purslane was Ghandi’s favorite food. Minus the bacon fat, most likely.

Texas A&M University’s horticulture archives contained a recipe for “Mexican Purslane Stuffing.” The name, you may notice, doesn’t exactly ooze Mexican authenticity. But it looked intriguing, and I had all the ingredients, so I tried it. Since I’d read elsewhere that purslane is popular in Mexico cooked with pork, I decided to improve the recipe in that direction with a little you-know-what.

First I picked and washed my purslane, then I steamed it for three minutes and set it aside. Meanwhile, I started some chopped bacon in the pan, adding chopped garlic and onions when the bacon started to cook (if you don’t want to use bacon, cook the garlic and onions in oil). Then I added some chopped jalepeño peppers and cherry tomatoes (you could also use chopped tomato) and let it cook with the lid on over medium heat. When those ingredients were all cooked, I seasoned the mix with black pepper, added two eggs, beaten, and the purslane, with a little more minced garlic and a tablespoon of soy sauce (Mexican soy sauce, of course), and stirred it around gently until the egg was set up but not dried out. I ate it for breakfast with tortillas and coffee. It was muy delicioso.

As the day heated up I was ready to chill, and once again purslane came to my rescue. I selected a recipe for purslane cucumber yogurt salad from starchefs.com, submitted by chef Steve Johnson, voted Best Chef of 1988 by Boston Magazine.

I’ll give you Johnson’s measurements so you can get an idea of the proportions, although this makes a restaurant-sized batch. Also, I think he’s skimping on the purslane—probably because he has to pay like $6.79 a pound for it, even though it’s growing in the sidewalk cracks out front.

Peel and seed five large cucumbers before cutting them into quarter-round slices, which get mixed in a bowl with 1/4 pound purslane (large stems removed) and 2 tablespoons each of chopped mint, cilantro and chervil. In another bowl, mix 4 cups yogurt, 1/4 cup XVOO (that’s restaurant lingo for extra-virgin olive oil), three cloves pureed garlic, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, a pinch of black pepper and salt to taste. Combine the contents of both bowls, season with more salt if necessary, and chill.

Again, I began by weeding that pepper and basil patch. I didn’t have any cucumbers, since I’m mildly retarded and didn’t plant any, but luckily my neighbor owed me a favor and paid in cukes.

This salad, with a glass of lemonade, will defeat the hottest 4 p.m. heat wave. Sans bacon, my mouth was nonetheless full of the flavor of this Ghandi-friendly dish. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the herbs, coriander or garlic. Go purslane!

Ask Chef Boy Ari: From the frying pan to the trash?

Q: Dear CBA,

While steaming a head of locally grown organic cheddar-colored cauliflower over medium heat, I managed to burn off all the water in a 3-quart nonstick KitchenAid sauté pan. The smoke alarm went off, the cheddar-colored cauliflower turned a nasty tar color, and my $100 nonstick pan (a wedding gift) looks like toast. My question is: can I still use that pan or will I die? Alternately, do you think KitchenAid will reimburse me for my stupidity?
—Steamed

A: Dear Steamed,

Did you eat your cheddar-colored cauliflower that had “turned a nasty tar color?” Probably not, because it was gross, and it sounds like your pan is too. It doesn’t sound like something I would want to eat from. But you never know. Read on.

Best case scenario: it’s possible that the tarry stuff is just soot from the blackened cheddar-colored cauliflower that burned on the pan. In this case, simply wash the blackened goo from the pan, perhaps after soaking it overnight. If the pan looks good to go, it probably is.

If not, I’m a little confused. What I’ve learned about KitchenAid sauté pans is that they don’t use Teflon-like coatings, but rather a process called “hard-anodization” to form a tough outer skin on their nonstick aluminum cookware. Your sauté pan was submerged in an acid bath and then subjected to electrical charges. This treatment caused the aluminum to oxidize on the surface, resulting in a very hard and smooth finish that shouldn’t burn off.

I suppose you could try submerging your pan in a tub of battery acid and then jamming the handle into the wall electrical socket, but that might negate whatever’s left of your KitchenAid limited lifetime warranty—which I’m afraid doesn’t cover stupidity.

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