We've been talking a lot about spring around here, what with our minds on ramps and fiddleheads and morels. In my little Brooklyn community garden (where there is nary a fiddlehead or morel to be found), I noticed just the other day that the sorrel patch was already up, green and beautiful, despite the super slow start to spring we've had here in NYC. Sorrel is an underappreciated vegetable (or is it an herb?), but I love its tart, lemony flavor. And, like the other harbingers of spring we've been waxing philosophical about lately, its presence in the garden makes me feel hopeful that these cold days are soon to be a thing of the past. (Seriously, Mother Nature. This is getting ridiculous.)
There is something so tragic about a vegetable that once ran with the popular crowd, only to be later shut out of the cool kids' parties. (I'm looking at you, kale.) Native to Europe and Northern Asia, where it still grows wild, sorrel was once pretty fashionable - eaten and cultivated by the ancients (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans) in quantity, and particularly loved by the French, British and Italians in the Middle Ages, when improved varieties began to be bred in earnest. (It is still fairly common in these countries.) Food historian Alan Davidson notes that sorrel was a major component of the once wildly popular "greensauce," a mixture of sorrel and other herbs, recipes for which date from at least the 12th century (and a version of which, Grüne Sosse, hails from Frankfort, Germany, and is still pretty popular).
There are a couple of sorrel species commonly cultivated - Rumex acetosa (common, or "garden" sorrel) and Rumex scutatus (French or "round-leafed" sorrel). Both are perennials (meaning it re-grows every year) in the buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family. Sorrel also grows wild in parts of Europe, where it is still foraged. Wood sorrel, which looks a lot like shamrocks, an unrelated species, is also foraged and eaten wild. Cultivated sorrel (common and French) is alternately referred to as both an herb and as a vegetable - because it has a fairly strong flavor, it is frequently used relatively sparingly in recipes (like an herb), although some dig it raw in salads (like a vegetable). So there you go.
Sorrel is a super easy plant to grow - if you have a hard time finding it where you live, consider growing it in a window box, pot or small spot in your garden. It can be planted by seed or propagated by cuttings or plant division.
Cultivated sorrel is a cool-weather vegetable/herb, available in most places starting in mid-March; once the weather warms up, sorrel tends to bolt. A fall crop is also not uncommon.
Sorrel's relative unpopularity means that it doesn't even remotely show up on the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, nor does it have much environmental impact at all. Good news for us sorrel lovers.
Sorrel sort of looks like spinach - common sorrel has spear-shaped, deep green leaves, while French sorrel's leaves are a bit wavier. Both have reddish-brown flower clusters when allowed to bolt. French sorrel is said to be more mild (i.e., less sour) than common sorrel. Sorrel has been described as tasting like sour green apples, wild strawberries and kiwi mixed with basil and spinach. Or, less poetically, like lemons.
Look for sorrel leaves that are deep green and not at all yellow or wilted, with no black or mushy spots. Smaller leaves tend to be milder in flavor than larger ones - so, if given the option, choose based on the way you're going to use them (i.e., if in salads, smaller is better. For soups and other cooked dishes, larger is OK). Look for sorrel at farmers' markets - you're unlikely to find it in the produce aisle at a conventional grocery store. Some types of sorrel have a reddish-brown veins and/or stems.
Lemony sorrel is super high in vitamin C - just 1/2 cup of the leafy green provides you with about half of your daily vitamin C needs. It is also high in vitamin A and potassium and is a good source of iron.
However, sorrel contains very high amounts of oxalic acid - that's what makes the veggie seem tart - which can be bad news for those who are prone to kidney stones (most kidney stones are made up of calcium oxalate). And bad news for everyone, if you were to eat a huge amount of raw sorrel leaves in one sitting (oxalic acid in high quantities is really, really bad for your kidneys). Oxalic acid can also inhibit the absorption of calcium and iron. There are a couple of things you can do to counter this - add a splash of lemon juice to your sorrel dish (Vitamin C helps enhance iron absorption), or just make sure you limit your consumption of raw sorrel. Cooking helps reduce oxalic acid content in veggies that contain the substance.
Some people love sorrel raw in salads, some people hate it. I'd urge you to try it raw in small doses (and incidentally, too much raw sorrel can make you a bit sick due to the oxalic acid) - for example, add a handful of leaves to a nice spring lettuce salad, or toss it in with cabbage for a refreshing slaw. If you want to be bold and go for an all-sorrel-no-lettuce salad, pair it with a sweeter dressing or with fruit - here's a yummy-looking salad recipe that pairs raw sorrel with white peaches, or this beet, strawberry and sorrel salad that must be eaten (by me) immediately.
You can also use raw sorrel leaves like you would an herb - chopped up and added to legumes (beans and lentils are natural friends of sorrel) or eggs, or as an addition to yogurt or sour cream as a refreshing, lemony dip. Here's a super fun list of 50 things to do with sorrel from Chocolate and Zucchini.
Cooking reduces sorrel's oxalic acid content, and it also makes the leaves soft and rich and delicious, like really good spinach. Highlight sorrel's lemony flavor by pairing it with fish or shellfish - like this salmon with sorrel sauce. Or as a sauce for scallops - yum. The historic sorrel-based "greensauce" was commonly paired with veal; here is the German version that Saveur magazine claims is delicious with boiled vegetables (I believe them). But probably the most common way to cook sorrel, across many different cultures, is in soup. Green borscht (aka sorrel soup) is an Eastern European spring delicacy, usually garnished with sour cream, hard-boiled egg and/or croutons. French versions of sorrel soup usually involve liberal amounts of cream and butter (surprise, surprise), both of which serve to temper its distinctive bite. Sorrel soups may be served hot or chilled, as in this version by Kurt Michael Friese. Sorrel is also used in Vietnamese cuisine (probably introduced by the French); called Rau Chua, it is used in herb plates (accompaniments to many Vietnamese dishes, such as soups or spring rolls). Indian cuisine also employs sorrel - as in this yummy-sounding dal with sorrel.
Remarkably, sorrel is equally at home in sweet dishes, its tart flavor complimenting fruit especially - like these amazing sounding lemon cupcakes with sorrel meringue frosting. Or this strawberry sorrel ice cream, which will be perfect when the first early strawberries start showing up at the market.
To remove sorrel's bite (if you must), blanch it first. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop in the sorrel leaves and boil for one minute. Plunge leaves into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Unfortunately, sorrel turns a sort of drab brownish green when cooked; many recipes counter this by adding some quantity of spinach to the recipe to perk things up, color-wise.
Sorrel is super perishable, and usually won't last past a day or two in the fridge. Wrap in damp paper towels and stick in an open zip-top bag in your crisper drawer to extend its fridge life just slightly.
Apparently, you can buy pickled sorrel, popular in Eastern Europe and used as a condiment, and even can it yourself. You can also freeze whole sorrel leaves, or puree it and freeze in ice cube trays, or even dry the leaves - here's the step by step process for each.
Lemony sorrel pairs perfectly with creamy yogurt, potatoes and crisp bacon bits. (Of course, feel free to omit the bacon for a vegetarian version of this dish.) I've added chopped parsley to brighten the color of the potato salad - poor sorrel suffers from an aesthetic problem, as it has a tendency to turn an unappetizing color when cooked.
1 bunch garden or French sorrel, leaves washed and stems removed
3 oz organic Greek yogurt (half of a small container)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped finely or pressed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 lbs potatoes (I like small Yukon Golds or new potatoes, if available), halved if small, quartered if large
2 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped into bits
1⁄4 cup parsley, chopped
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)