Tag Archives: wild greens

Purslane: Summer’s Healthy Gift

Big bunch of verdolagas

Big bunch of verdolagas

By this time in the Arizona monsoon season, flower gardens and other empty spaces should be full of juicy purslane, also called verdolagas. It has small fleshly leaves about the size of a fingernail, pinkish stems, and grows close to the ground.  I have only a small patch this year next to an irrigation emitter because it simply has not rained yet in our part of downtown Tucson. The cactus are pitifully shrivelled and the ground is weedless. The picture above is from last year.

Purslane can be eaten raw, chopped in salads or sautéed .  In addition to all the vitamin C, calcium, and iron, purslane also has the most omega-3 fatty acids of any green. This is an important nutrient as our modern diets do not provide enough of it.   Certain fibers also help in controlling blood sugar.  Since it’s free and (usually) abundant, why not try some?

My friend Roni Rivera-Ashford taught me to put a bowl under the colander and catch the water you use to rinse the purslane. You will find lots of very tiny black seeds in the water.  Pour that water with the seeds on a potted plant and you’ll have purslane next year.

To prepare the purslane, first chop and sauté  some onion and garlic in a little oil.  I have I’Itoi onions left in my fridge from spring. Somehow they “know” it is time to be planted so they are beginning to sprout so I used some of those.


Next add the chopped purslane.


The classic next addition is chopped tomatoes.  My advisor on Mexican food is my water aerobics buddy Elda Islas. She cooked for a houseful of sons when they were growing up and now delights grandchildren with her authentic Mexican food.  She’s also pretty laid back.  When I asked what else to add, she said, “Anything you want!”  She added, “Sometimes I just clean out the refrigerator.”  Taking her cue, I also added fresh corn and sautéed  chicken pieces.

Add chopped tomatoes...

Add chopped tomatoes…

 ... and chicken if you'd like.

… and chicken if you’d like.

The mixture tasted a little bland to me, so I added a tablespoon of Santa Cruz Chili Paste.  That is a staple in my refrigerator.


Elda’s suggestion for cheese topping is also forgiving:  “Whatever you have.” I have some nice organic white cheddar so that is what you see on these purslane tacos.

The finished purslane tacos.

The finished purslane tacos.

If you have a favorite way to use purslane, please share with the rest of us.


*I will be at the Second Annual Prickly Pear Festival in Superior this Saturday demonstratiing Prickly Pear Onion Jam.  This event was rollicking last year and promises to be even better this year.


If you are interested in more recipes for desert plants, take a look at my books Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants and The Prickly Pear Cookbook.   The New Southwest Cookbook contains recipes from talented restaurant and resort chefs throughout the Southwest using traditional ingredients in new and delicious ways.


Spring greens: final harvest

After working in our garden for a little while, my husband Ford came to find me in our kitchen. “You’ve got to get rid of all those weeds,” he said.  “They are sucking up all the water for the lime tree.” 

Weeds?  What weeds?  Those are wild greens!  But the lambs-quarter plants were getting huge and it was time to harvest them.  After pulling the plants up, I began plucking off the leaves.  From that big bunch, I ended up with about 11 cups of raw greens.  I steamed them in three bunches and ended up with around 5 cups. I used one for dinner that night mixed with some Swiss chard from my garden and froze the rest in 1-cup bags.   I’m going to use a couple of bags of the frozen greens  this weekend to make a brunch dish for a baby shower.  The mom-to-be is a vegetarian, so we’ve planned the menu to suit her.   We’ll have two dishes from my new cookbook, Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants Our main dish will be Squares of Green, which is basically a quiche with greens and cheese.  You could use a recipe you have or find the one in my book.  We’ll also have French Green Lentil and Nopalito Salad, also in the book.  To a  base of  French green lentils, which don’t fall apart when tender, we will add some sauteed nopalitos, chopped red pepper and green onions. It will be dressed with hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar.    We will round things out with a fruit salad. The desserts we have planned are too decadent for me to own up to here.

  If you live in the desert, it is time to harvest any wild greens; anyone who lives further north or at  higher elevation still has several months to go before your harvest.

Father Kino’s Herbs

Award-winning garden writer Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.  Father Kino, born in what is now Italy, arrived in the Pimeria Alta in March 1687 and worked for 24 years to make the lives of the natives living there better, while, of course, converting them to Christianity.  Father Kino and the other Catholic missionaires introduced some Old World herbs and discovered some New World plants unknown in Europe. 

Before modern drugstores, herbs were a family’s medicine chest. The native populations knew which ones worked as an insectide, antiseptic, laxative, cold medicine, sleep aid,  and vitamin pill.  They were aware that certain twigs were good to use as a toothbrush and  others were good to dye fibers. Soule discusses more 40 of these plants, from Aloysia (Mexican oregano)  to Yerba Mansa.  She tells how to select, plant and nuture them. Once you’ve grown your herbs, Soule leads you through harvesting and preserving in a useful form.

Soule concludes the book with a few recipes including herb syrups, herbal toothpaste and bubblebath.  You can purchase Father Kino’s Herbs at the Tucson Botantical Gardens or order it here.

Jacqueline A. Soule, Ph.D.

Spring Greens: Watercress

Watercress growing in creek

Heading to a picnic with friends in far southern Arizona yesterday, we stopped along Sonoita Creek and found an abundant growth of watercress on both sides of the stream.  It should  be available throughout the West in flowing water.  This stand was so lush and abundant, I couldn’t resist picking several big handsful to add to the salad I was contributing to the potluck.  Once we got to the picnic site, I cleaned it in fresh water before tossing it with the spinach and peppers I had brought from home.  Watercress is easy to recognize with its fleshy stems and small leaves about the size of a woman’s fingernail.  And it always grows right in water.  Here is a close-up view and shows the variable leaf shapes. 

Watercress with varying leaf shapes

When I was researching my first book American Indian Cooking, Recipes from the Southwest (originally titled American Indian Food and Lore) back in 1970, I had hiked down to Supai Canyon with some friends and interviewed some Havasupai women about the edible wild plants they gathered.  When I got back to camp and was looking over my notes, I realized that the woman I had spoken to had not mentioned the abundant watercress growing along the creek.  I went back the next day and asked her about it.”Oh, that’s food for horses,” was her reply.  I told her that white people ate it, even bought it in the grocery story.  “Well, we Indians think it is food for horses,” she said, and that was that.

Besides adding watercress to a salad, use it to add interest to sandwiches.  Or incorporate it into a salad dressing using a blender or a food processor.  Find recipes for watercress and other spring greens in Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.

If you have a favorite place for gathering watercress or an interesting way to use it, please share below.

Spring greens: peppergrass

Peppergrass with flat spicy seeds

Peppergrass (Lepidium Fremontii and other species) appears in spring in the desert and summer in higher elevations along paths and roadsides.  The tiny flat seeds are spicy and really wake up your tongue.  The easiest way to use them is to pick the seeds off the stem and include them in a salad dressing or just sprinkle them over your salad greens.  Another easy preparation, one that is fun to do with children, is to use them as a flavoring on pita chips.  Cut pita bread into triangles and carefully separate the two layers.  Arrange the triangles on a cookie sheet and brush the rough sides with olive oil.  Then sprinkle on the peppergrass seeds along with one or two other herbs. Toast in a 200 degree oven for a few minutes until crisp.  Watch closely so they do not burn.

 On another matter, I spent the afternoon doing a post-cookbook-writing spring cleaning of my refrigerator. I found some jars of reddish mystery sauces, obviously a holdover from a recipe testing session. Out they went. An exciting discovery was a whole quart of homemade prickly pear syrup, a smaller jar of saguaro syrup, and a jar of Summer Jam made from prickly pear, plums and peaches, the recipe for which appears in Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Less exciting was a small container of thoroughly desiccated pickled ginger that I bought to test a Ginger Carrot Soup recipe from Lambert’s of Taos.  That recipe, delicious by the way, appears in The New Southwest Cookbook, which came out seven years ago. That ginger had been lurking back there way too long.

 My mother was still alive when I was testing recipes for my first book American Indian Cooking (formerly American Indian Food and Lore) in the early 1970s.  She asked me once why my refrigerator was always so full – not chiding me, just curious.  When all the wild foods I use have to share space with the mayo and the pickles, the shelves just fill up. Thus the impetus for the clean-up this afternoon.

If you are looking for recipes for other wild greens or the cactus products that will be ready to pick now that spring is nearly here, check out my new book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  I tell you how to pick them and how to turn them into tasty dishes.

Spring greens: Lamb’s quarter


I’m rushing to get ready for a demonstration in the culinary tent at Tucson Festival of Books tomorrow, but noticed this lamb’s-quarter (Chenopodium berlandieri or fremontii) growing like crazy in my yard.  This is one of the tastiest of the spring greens.  It shows up in March and April in desert areas, but I’ve seen it as late as July in Prescott which is a mile high.  It is sometimes called goosefoot because the shape of the leaves (closeup at the bottom) looks the the footprint a goose might make in a muddy barnyard. 

Because of its abundance and mild flavor, lamb’s-quarter is one of the most popular wild foods gathered not just in the West but also throughout the country.  When gathering, cloose plants less than one foot tall or use the new shoots of older plants.  The stems can be tough, so discard them after you have picked off the succulent leaves. Steam the leaves by placing them in a pot with a tightly fitting lid, add a tablespoon or two of water and cook over low heat for about five minutes.  A little butter and maybe a dash of chile is all the seasoning it needs. 

Lamb’s-quarter is loaded with nutrition — a cup of cooked greens provides about as much calcium as a cup of cow’s milk and more vitamin A than a serving of spinach.  You can use it in any recipes where you would use spinach, or check out the recipes for greens in my book Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.

Can you see the goosefoot?

Spring Greens: Monkey Flower

Young Monkey Flower

Joined my pal Linda McKittrick last week to hunt for wild spring greens that like to grow in damp places. We headed out to Sabino Creek that flows through Sabino Canyon with snowmelt from Mt. Lemmon. Who knew looking for plants could be so treacherous?  In crossing the creek I slipped on a rock and ended up butt-first  in the creek.  Fortunately I was carrying my fanny pack with my camera and cell phone on my belly, so it sat above the shallow (cold!) creek water. In hindsight I’m sorry Linda was more concerned with my condition that snapping a picture of the moment.

With the warm spring, I expected the greens to be more advanced for this time of year, but they were just popping up.  There was one gorgeous exception — a cascade of monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) down the side of a small rock dam (see photo at bottom of post).  The plant above is small, but a normal sized plant would have leaves about the size of a quarter, round or slightly overal, with toothed edges and sometimes a slightly hairy surface.  There is a problem in learning to identify this plant because you could look for the little yellow flower, that resembles a tiny yellow snapdragon, but by that time the plant will be much too bitter to eat.  Even young monkey flower leaves are a bit bitter.  Mix them in a salad with milder flavored wild or domestic greens

Monkey flower cascading down the dam

Carolyn Niethammer is the author of Cooking the Wild Southwest which contains recipes for 23 easily recognized desert plants, including about a dozen for wild greens. Buy it from B&N here.