There is still snow under the piles of leaves in the corners of the yard, but the sorrel is up. And not just peeping through the mulch of ground up leaves; it is really up. Like my garlic, which has grown six inches in a week, the sorrel is starting to take off.
I am looking forward to next week, when the lemony leaves will be ready to harvest.
Last year, when spring came earlier, after several weeks of tangy sorrel soup and tarts, and luscious rhubarb pies and rhubarb wine (!!), I wondered if the slightly sour tang of these two early-season ready-to-eat plants could possibly be related? To my astonishment, I discovered in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen “Sorrel is the startlingly sour leaf of several European relatives of rhubarb…”
Though the sour of sorrel is, for some, an acquired taste, it goes well with fish as a natural lemony green sauce. It is also tempered by the sweetness of potato, cream and egg in a soup (eaten warm or cold, which, given the vicissitudes of spring temperatures in Vermont, is appropriate). The sour of rhubarb is tempered with sugar (or your favorite sweetener), or the addition of strawberries and sometimes a sweet flakey pastry, but it too, can accompany meat as a tangy sauce.
There is something about the sour fresh taste of these “cousins” that, in my mind, mimics the freshness of the air of early spring mornings. Or maybe it is just that I particularly relish the first food that comes out of the ground after my winter hibernation.
Where the emergence of rhubarb marks the coming of the garden season for some, my patch is only in its second year, but sorrel has been my harbinger of spring for as long as I can remember. My mother’s sorrel soup, a recipe from her mother, graced the table every early May. Back in late March, when the internal debate about whether I can get away with planting peas begins, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to think about unfurling, sorrel, with its red tinged leaves, pokes through the wet leaf mulch in my herb garden. A perennial, it is unfailingly punctual, and comes back each year more vigorously than the year before. There are years when I must divide it (giving some away to friends) so it won’t crowd out the sage next door. My patch of sorrel came as a division from a friend, Martha, fifteen years ago, when we started the garden.
The first leaves are a delicious tangy addition to a salad. The larger leaves – and they come quickly -- can be wilted into a sauce with a bit of olive oil, or butter, in a pan, or added to soup, or layered into a potato gratin. The older leaves become tough and sour, and it’s important then to strip away the tough stems when cooking. Don’t let the flower stalks take off, pinch them back. Sorrel must be picked constantly: since it grows so vigorously, I find myself hacking it back, trying to keep it under control, which means that all summer long, I make small batches of sauce, which I freeze in zip-lock bags, or layer into freezer containers.
Also vigorous, and best grown from divisions from a friend’s patch, Rhubarb, can be left alone once planted – so site your patch with a mind to leaving it there. It needs rich soil, and sun. During the first couple of years do not harvest any. Let it grow. (When “picking” rhubarb, tug the stalks out; do not cut them off. The base of the stalk is the most tender). Like the sorrel, nip off the flower stalks during the “eating season.” Now I, like many folks, have always thought of rhubarb as a fruit – perhaps because frequently it comes with strawberries, perhaps it is the addition of sugar – but in fact the part we eat is the stalk of a huge leaf. Only the stalks are eaten, as the leaves contain Oxalic acid, which is poisonous. It is the Oxalic acid, present in a much-diluted concentration, that gives the slightly sour tang to both rhubarb stalks and sorrel leaves.
My father sits behind a Rhubarb plant in mid summer in Connecticut. Note the flower stalks have not been pruned, but clearly this plant has energy to spare. To the left is a patch of Sorrel, also unpruned. Photo credit: my wonderful cousin, Nini Gridley