Round Robin: Welcome Spring with Sorrel

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

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CHICAGO, Illinois—Midspring may be my favorite time of year. It’s warm enough to be out in shirtsleeves but not yet so hot that air conditioners beckon. The damp, gray mudtime is over and nature is springing to life. Everything is clean, new, and brilliantly verdant.

I walk in my garden, delighting in each new day’s unfolding of leaves and swelling of buds, the fresh shoots poking out of the earth, the deepening colors. Few insect pests have yet come to life; no plant diseases are in evidence; weeds are small and easily dispatched. There is outdoor work to do, but we are still a few weeks shy of the last frost date here, so it’s not yet an urgent frenzy.

The rabbits nibbling clover in the lawn still seem cute—not the garden menace they’ll become when I have vegetables at risk. It’s all too short a season, and precious.

My half acre in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago is solidly Zone 5, too far west for Lake Michigan’s moderating influence. The temperate zone, they call it.

Right. Within six months during 1995 and 1996, we went from a killing high of 105°F to an arctic low of -20°. One day, the temperature rose from the 20s to 60°—just long enough to melt the snow cover—and then dropped overnight into single digits before sinking further into the subzero range. Couple these weather extremes with heavy, sticky, alkaline clay soil, and gardening here is a continual challenge.

I expect to devote most of this spring to serious digging up and dividing of my herbs, most of which have really spread in the past couple of years. The one herb that hasn’t spread more than I’d like is sorrel. Although herb books tell you that “a few” plants will provide all the sorrel you’ll need, their authors obviously don’t make sorrel soup. Even harvesting all the leaves I dare from my three large plants, I still usually need to eke it out with spinach.

Sorrel is one of the earliest spring greens, appearing even before the dandelions. Like the dandelion, sorrel is a hardy perennial, easy to grow (and not at all invasive), and something of a spring tonic with its sprightly, tart, lemony flavor. The youngest leaves make good salad greens, and French, Scandinavian, and Eastern European cooks use larger ones as a potherb, in soups and sauces, and brewed into a tea. Here, it is rare in markets and then is too expensive to use as a salad green or soup base. If you want to eat it in quantity, your best hope of a supply is to grow your own.

Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) grows in clumps of light green, arrowhead-shaped leaves about 5 inches long. In summer, 3-foot-long, branching stalks bear hundreds of small rusty-colored blooms that are interesting but not really attractive. In any case, you’ll want to cut off the developing flower stalks to stimulate the growth of young, tender leaves rather than allowing the plant to put its energy into producing seeds. Once seed production begins, the leaves get tough and bitter. (Richters’ trademarked introduction Profusion is said not to set any seed.) Some people prefer the more concentrated flavor of French sorrel, R. scutatus, a shorter, creeping species with spreading stems and smaller, thicker, irregularly lobed leaves. Plant garden sorrel where the low-growing leaves will be accessible but the stalks not obtrusive. Both species need full sun.

Like spinach and rhubarb, sorrel—tasty as it is—contains oxalates, which are poisonous in large amounts. Thus it should be eaten in moderation.

Sorrel Cream Soup

Serves 4 to 6

This spring tradition is known as schav or schav borscht among Jews of Russian extraction. It’s delicious, whatever it’s called.

1 teaspoon pressed garlic (4 cloves)
6 packed cups fresh, young sorrel leaves, stemmed and torn into pieces (or substitute 3 packed cups sorrel plus one 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed and drained)
1/2 packed cup fresh flat-leaved parsley
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 quart chicken broth
Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
3/4 cup sour cream
Croutons for garnish

In a large saucepan, sauté the garlic, sorrel, and parsley in the butter until the greens are wilted. Stir in the tarragon, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the chicken broth and simmer for 10 minutes or until the greens are very soft.

Puree the mixture in a blender and return it to the saucepan. Reheat, adjusting the seasoning (you’re more likely to need to add lemon juice for tartness if you used spinach). Off heat, whisk in the sour cream. Serve hot or chilled, garnished with croutons.