I was texting with a friend in Mexico City, Chef Victor Bibbins, at the end of his day while he waited for the meal he had just ordered moments before. When it arrived, he sent me snapshot of a stew with golden pieces of pork nestled in soft shrouds of dark green leaves. Try as I might, I could not guess the vegetable. Like a proud father, he introduced me to verdolagas en salsa verde con carne de cerdo (purslane in green salsa with pork). My interest in this wordy dish was immediately piqued because (1) my love for stew is infinite, (2) he said it is one of his favorite dishes, (3) I have never tried nor heard of the dish, and (4) the name gives top billing to an herb while casting the usual meaty celebrity into a supporting role. Imagine if basil was SO good that we renamed a Caprese salad “Basil in balsamic reduction with tomatoes and mozzarella.” I was sold, and the course was set to make VeSVcCdC as soon as possible.
Locating the headliner for this act was task number one. Verdolagas, generally known as purslane in the US, if it is known at all, is an herb with a wide-ranging and illustrious global history. The people of Japan, Greece, Russia, Australia, Turkey, Shri Lanka, Morocco, and Mexico have long regaled its merits. Nevertheless, the same plant is considered a weed by most US growers and eradicated on sight. To make matters worse, verdolagas have a short growing season limited to the hot but wet days of late summer when they spread like wildfire and earn their reputation as a weed.
I consulted the internet for images of the prize and I left the house to make my usual circuit of grocery stops including specialty markets for Spanish, Peruvian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian items. If it would be found, I expected to need an extra stop at Specialty Produce, a restaurant supplier that is graciously open to the public. I even put seeds in my Amazon cart anticipating that I may need to grow it myself in a pinch. It wouldn’t be the first time.
My first stop was the Middle Eastern market, Harvest International. A produce clerk was stocking the refrigerator case when I unexpectedly spied my target on the shelf next to the cilantro. I snatched the bundles of leafy greens from the case and clutched them to my chest like I’d just been crowned Miss Universe. The clerk laughed out loud at my exuberance. (There may or may not have been a tear of joy too.) However, being Mexican, the grocer fully understood my elation and offered congratulations because he believed them to be the last crop of the season.
Once home, I eyed my prize. Thick, juicy pale green stems branch off into little bunches of spongy leaves no bigger than my thumbnail. I plucked one from its nubby branch and popped it into my mouth. The flavor of spinach meets cucumber to form something uniquely fresh and vegetal. The preparation is simple – cut away the thickest stems and rinse.
The recipe (approved by Chef Bibbins) is nearly as simple as the 8-item ingredient list: verdolagas, pork (I used butt), cilantro, tomatillos, onion, garlic, chile serrano, and beef stock. The result, on the other hand, is a dish that implied laborious complexity. Sautéing the raw salsa verde into the pork fond is a trick of pure alchemy. In the end, served with the customary sides of black beans and tortillas, the stew is a perfect harmony of herbaceous, tangy, and spicy notes with a distinct sweetness that can manifest only through the Maillard reaction when meat turns golden brown and leaves a umami-rich fond on the pan. So damned delicious.
Just 8 ingredients (cilantro is missing from the photo), plus salt and pepper.
You may also like to know that verdolagas is rich in potassium, magnesium, beta carotene, and an omega three fatty acid. It is clinically proven to lower blood pressure and regulate cholesterol levels. I tell you this so that you can justify a second bowl, without regard for the glorious, glistening pork fat.
Verdolagas en salsa verde con carne de cerdo.