What's In Season: Sorrel
Sorrel is one of those greens that you see at a farmer's market but you think it is something else. I always mistake it for spinach but apart from appearance, they couldn't be more different. Sorrel is an herb with either shield-shaped or rounded leaves and other names for it are spinach dock or sour grass. It's loved for its bright, acidic flavor that comes from oxalic acid, the same ingredient that gives rhubarb its exquisite bite, which makes sense since the two plants are related. There's a Caribbean species but the sorrel we see at our markets is the one that 's found in European and Eastern European cooking, including some classic French sauces and traditional Russian soups.
Sorrel is easiest to find in the spring and early summer but many farmer's markets have it right through August. Its leaves are fragile making it more likely to be found at a farmer's market or Greenmarket, or from a friend's herb garden -- where it can grow like a lively weed -- than it is in a grocery store because it simply doesn't travel well. As the herb ages, the acidic flavor gets stronger. This means you can moderate the amount of acidic taste by age of the leaves (young, tender ones are milder), or else by using a lighter or heavier hand when adding the quantity of sorrel to any recipe.
Some who have small vegetable gardens will grow sorrel because the rabbits that eat all the lettuce crops don't seem to like it and leave it alone. But it's worth growing for its own bright, slightly sour flavor that's usually used in one of three ways:
- As an acidic bite to a green salad. Add a few leaves to mixed greens or if you want an entirely all-sorrel salad, use tender, young leaves and leave the vinegar alone: just a little olive oil, salt and pepper and you'll have a big flavor. You can also use it as you would a piece of arugula, on a sandwich, or layering with a piece of smoked salmon and cream cheese to make an hors d'oeuvre.
- In sorrel soup. The herb makes a perfect early summer soup when mixed with good chicken stock and light cream and it can be served warm or chilled. See our own recipe, shared with us by friend and city cook Katherine Ryden.
- As a sauce for roasted chicken or fish, especially salmon. While you can make a cheating version of the classic French beurre blanc sauce with sorrel (wilt chopped sorrel in butter, add cream, salt and pepper and gently bring to simmer), a quicker and easier and brighter flavored sauce is a simple pesto.
Here's a recipe adapted from one by English chef Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall:
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
2 handfuls young sorrel leaves (about 2 cups)
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, the leaves only and all stems removed (about 1/2 cup)
6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano or hard goat cheese
- Add the garlic to the basket of a food processor and pulse until the garlic is very finely chopped. Scrape down the sides with a spatula.
- In a small skillet over medium heat, lightly toast the pine nuts until they just begin to turn golden. Remove from the heat and immediately add the pine nuts to the garlic in the food processor (otherwise they'll continue to brown in the hot pan). Let the pine nuts and garlic sit for a couple of minutes so that the mixture cools down.
- Add the sorrel, parsley and a pinch of salt to the pine nuts and garlic. Pulse a few times until all the ingredients are roughly chopped and combined. While the machine is running, or if you want a coarser pesto, as you periodically pulse the machine, slowly pour in the olive oil until the pesto is the consistency you like.
- Spoon the pesto mixture into a bowl and add the grated cheese. The pesto will keep refrigerated for about a week.
So the next time you're at a Greenmarket and a large plastic bin of herbs is looking unfamiliar. Take a risk. You may get lucky and find some sorrel. Beginning with a fresh summer herb is just another way to cook from the ingredients up.