When I was in high school I was a botany nerd. I spent time identifying wild flowers, I liked to grow plants from seeds and spent hours studying seed catalogs, and I wanted to be a pomologist when I grew up. Pomology? The study of the cultivation of fruit.Yeah, I know. Way to fit in!
I spent the summer after ninth grade reading and rereading a book from the 1940s I'd found in the library called Fruits for the Home Garden by U.P. Hedrick which was an encyclopedic listing of all the fruits, particularly apples, in cultivation. It was filled with descriptions of apple varieties no longer cultivated commercially that had romantic and poetic names like the Chenango Strawberry or Cox's Orange Pippin. It was U.P. Hedrick who inspired my pomologist aspirations. No, I had no idea what a pomologist actually did.
As a botany nerd, another of my inspirations was an amateur botanist named Euell Gibbons who had written an unlikely sounding bestseller called Stalking the Wild Asparagus in the early 1960s which was about edible plants that grow wild with recipes for preparing them. From his book I learned to identify a number of edible plants although in high school I had little interest in cooking so I didn't make very many of these recipes. I do remember using staghorn sumac from which I made indian lemonade, which was pretty delicious, but I think the only other thing I cooked was pokeweed as part of an 11th grade ecology class project. I led my class in a tour of edible plants in Rock Creek Park, we collected pokeweed shoots, and then I cooked them for the class.
Hey, it was the early 70s; this sort of thing was completely normal, at least at my school. The high school I went to was a small "alternative" school where the students were allowed to come to school barefoot if they wished and we addressed our teachers by their first name. My ecology teacher was a man who had worked as an aerospace engineer but wanted to do something more meaningful with his life (I think it was one of those tune in, turn on, and drop out sort of things) and found himself teaching math and science to a group of high school students. This was the poor man who had to teach me algebra 2 and trigonometry and would spend his time endlessly explaining various concepts of algebra and trigonometry all the while hoping to see some flicker of recognition from me. It never happened. I don't know how I passed.
Most of the cooking of the pokeweed was actually done by one of my friends who was an accomplished cook for a high-schooler and she directed me in the boiling of the polk shoots and she made the hollandaise that sauced them. I don't remember how they tasted -- I've never made them again so they could not have been that good -- but I did get an A on the project. My ecology teacher said, "well, uh, I really don't know anything about this stuff but you seem like you do so I'm giving you an A." Again, this was the early 70s. Those were different times.
Another edible plant I was introduced to by Stalking the Wild Asparagus was purslane which is actually cultivated as a vegetable in other parts of the world. I never really ate it except to nibble on raw pieces which were pleasantly acidic. But through the years I've noticed it growing in sidewalk cracks or along alleys, and last year one of the vendors at the farmer's market was selling it. I also noticed it growing as a weed in my garden plot but this year, instead of weeding it out, I weeded around it. As I was waiting for my purslane to get a little bigger I came across a reference to purslane in a blog I just started reading called Dirt Sun Rain. Steven, the blog's author, uses purslane in salads which seemed like a good place to start and when I googled for purslane recipes, almost the first thing I hit was this recipe in the NY Times which ran as part of this article:
Chick Pea Salad with Purslane and Arugula
1 cup drained cooked or canned chick peas
1 teaspoon capers
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 scallion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or as needed
1 1/2 cups arugula leaves, torn into pieces
1 1/2 to 2 cups purslane with tender stems, cut into 1-inch lengths, or 3/4 cup purslane leaves
1. In a bowl, combine chick peas, capers, garlic and scallion. Add olive oil, lemon juice, and salt to taste.
2. Add arugula and purslane, and mix well. Season with additional olive oil, lemon juice, or salt if desired.
I made lunch for my parent's yesterday and they are the perfect people to try purslane with. It carries them back to my botany nerd days which they're very sentimental about. My mother particularly likes to reminisce about things like the time I grew marijuana plants that I told her were snapdragon plants which she then planted around our mailbox. Luckily for me while I was formulating my plans to surreptitiously buy real snapdragon plants and replace the marijuana plants, the marijuana plants all died. Just for the record, as a botany nerd I wasn't interested in smoking marijuana, just growing it.
The purslane from my garden is not as succulent as the varieties I see at the farmer's market and the taste was not distinctive, just pleasantly mild and slightly acidic, but this salad was absolutely delicious -- lemony and garlicky with the purslane and chick peas acting as a nice foil for the sharper flavors. And an interesting fact about purslane: it apparently has more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetables. This stuff is good for you! Which is good to know because I now plan to get rid of all the purslane in my garden plot by making this salad. I really enjoyed it.