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Anatolian Purslane, Lamb and Lentil Stew

Some Americans call it a weed, but in Turkey, purslane is a prize. My friend Ayfer Unsal, a feisty political journalist and passionate culinary sleuth, was beside herself. It was getting late in the day and we still hadn't found any decent purslane at her farmers' market in Gaziantep, in Southeast Anatolia, Turkey. She was about to give up when suddenly she spotted an old woman wheeling away a baby carriage filled with greens. "Quick! We must stop her!" Ayfer exclaimed. "She always has terrific herbs!" I followed as Ayfer dashed off, pushing her way through the crowd. When I caught up, she was in the process of buying a bundle of beautiful jade-colored, oval-leaved greens with purple stems. My friend was happy: she'd found the most important ingredient for a summer lamb and lentil stew called pirpirim asi--a beloved local specialty that's earthy and robust yet light and nourishing.

In America, grandmothers spoil their grandchildren with sweets; in Gaziantep, grandmothers use pirpirim asi. The story goes that Turkish cops will stop writing traffic tickets if the violator promises to bring them a freshly cooked pot. Purslane is the key to the stew's special flavor. Americans often refer to purslane as "that nuisance weed," the one that crops up in gardens, window boxes, sometimes even in the middle of gravel driveways. But to knowledgeable cooks, it is no nuisance! With its mild lemony taste and plump texture, it is a wonderful-tasting fresh green, of which there are precious few in late summer. If you don't have a garden and don't know where or how to forage for purslane, ask an organic grower at your local farmers' market to pick some for you. Perhaps you could even tempt the grower with a pot of stew.

Ayfer uses purslane in many different dishes, two of which I offer here. When tender and young, this green is delightful served raw in salads with tomatoes and cucumbers. When it's mature, the larger leaves and tender stems can be blanched and added to meat or vegetable dishes, making them light and delicious. Purslane is nutritious, too--it's a good source of antioxidants and has more heart-healthful omega-3 fatty acids than any other vegetable that's been studied.

In early fall, use bulky bunches of purslane for this recipe.
Serving: 4 TO 6
1/2 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and drained
1/3 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
1/4 cup mini brown lentils, picked over and rinsed (See box)
1/4 cup olive oil
5 ounces boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons Turkish red pepper paste (See Notes)
1 1/2 pounds purslane, thick stems discarded and leaves coarsely shredded
1/2 cup coarse bulgur
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried spearmint, leaves crushed to a fine powder
1/4 teaspoon Turkish red pepper flakes (see Notes)
  Freshly ground black pepper
  Trimmed scallions and lemon wedges, for serving

1. Rinse the black-eyed peas and chickpeas. Pour them into separate medium saucepans and cover with several inches of water. Cover and cook over moderate heat until tender, about 20 minutes for the black-eyed peas and 1 hour for the chickpeas. Drain the black-eyed peas and discard the liquid. Drain the chickpeas; reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the lentils with 4 cups of water, cover partially and cook over moderate heat until tender, about 40 minutes. Drain; reserve 2 cups of the cooking liquid.

3. In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the lamb and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the onion, cover and cook until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, red pepper paste and 1/2 cup of water and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until the mixture begins to caramelize, about 20 minutes.

4. Add the purslane, bulgur and the reserved chickpea and lentil cooking liquids to the casserole. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils, garlic and enough water to barely cover. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and season with salt.

5. In a small skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the spearmint, Turkish red pepper flakes and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. When the oil begins to sizzle, give it a stir and drizzle it over the stew. Stir once and let stand for 30 minutes. Serve the stew at room temperature or let cool, then refrigerate and serve chilled the following day. Pass the scallions and lemon at the table.


©Paula Wolfert, Mediterranean Grains and Greens

NOTES: Turkish red pepper paste and Turkish red pepper flakes are available at Middle Eastern groceries or by mail order from Kalustyan's (212-685-3451).

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