The Grateful Quickness of Sorrel

I’m having a shout-out for sorrel (F: oseille, G: Sauerampfer) right now. Like rhubarb, this is one of those springtime pleasures well worth celebrating. As the days lengthen and temperatures begin to creep up, the body somehow craves a sharp jolt to the system after the heavy fare of winter – I’m recalling the bean soups, richly sauced stews, mash-topped pies, lasagnes and polentas that we’ve loved of late.

This simple little plant is just putting its head above the parapet here in Alsace. It’s popping up all over the meadows and pastures that surround our village, along with a goodly crop of dandelions, clover, buttercups and ragged robins. You can forage it freely if you live in the kind of place where it grows wild and is there for the picking. Or grow it for yourself, from seed or plants.

And here’s a bonus: it’s richer even than lemons in Vitamin C and full of iron.  John Evelyn, the 17th century gardener and diarist, wrote that “sorrel sharpens the appetite, assuages heat, cools the liver and strengthens the heart; it is anti-scorbutic, resisting putrefaction and in the making of sallets [salads] imparts a grateful quickness to the rest, as supplying the want of oranges and lemons.”

I relish that idea of sorrel adding “a grateful quickness” to salads – throw a few of the deep green, spear-shaped, spinach-like leaves in amongst a tumble of lamb’s lettuce, iceberg and chicory and just see how they brighten things up – visually and gustatively.

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You can make a fresh green ‘gazpacho’ with sorrel, by blending a couple of handfuls of leaves with chicken or vegetable stock, 4-5 slices crustless white bread and a cup of whipping cream till smooth. Chill it well, pour into bowls, garnish with a few prawns, or strips of smoked salmon, or chopped hard-boiled egg and float some chives or chervil on top. Or fold some finely chopped raw leaves into an avocado mousse – the plant’s natural acidity provides a sharp counterpoint to the richness of the avocados.

Sorrel’s affinity with salmon is well documented – the late Pierre Troisgros in Roanne immortalised the match in his escalope de saumon à l’oseille, an emblematic nouvelle cuisine dish from the 1960s. In the same spirit, try adding few chopped leaves and plenty of chives to a quiche of salmon (fresh or smoked).

There are loads of sorrel recipes in my book Fruits of the Forest (Recettes des Forets et des Champs in French), published in the 90s and long out of print but wearing its years endearingly well – have a hunt on the internet and you should find some used copies.

Most recipes for sorrel dictate that you cook it for ages in gallons of water. This is a shame, as you’ll end up with a lump of khaki-coloured sludge (and kill off the vitamins in the process). If you’re going to cook it at all – rather than slipping it into your sallet or gazpacho – follow the recipe instructions below, drop it briefly into minimal boiling water, then blend with cream and simmer for max. 5 minutes so it doesn’t lose its vibrant, verdant hue.

SORREL SAUCE

Makes about 1 cup

A good handful of sorrel leaves, about 50g
250ml whipping cream
1 teaspoon powdered chicken stock or half a chicken stock cube, crumbled
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cornflour/cornstarch

Wash the sorrel leaves and drain. Close them up bookwise and strip away the central ribs.

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Place in a blender with cream, stock, cornflour and salt and pepper to taste and blend till smooth.

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Tip into a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Boil for 3 – 4 minutes, just long enough for the cornflour to thicken the sauce but not so long it loses its vibrant green colour. Check the seasoning, correcting if necessary.

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Serve with chicken, guinea fowl, quail, salmon or firm white fish.

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