By Cathy Erway
Pucker up Brooklyn, sorrel’s in season! The lemony green leaves of this common perennial garden herb can now be found at Greenmarkets, fresh from the ground. I found some super-fresh sorrel at Ray Bradley Farm‘s stand at Grand Army Plaza this past Saturday, tucked between crates of turnip greens and wintered-over spinach. But don’t mistake this leafy green for your average lettuce – with a beautifully intense, lemony tang, sorrel reminds me more of a thrill-seeking kid’s sour candy than a wedge salad.
That distinctive tang is why it tends to be used as an ingredient to lend acidity to dishes more often than being served alone. In Africa, it’s cooked into soups and stews with other vegetables or pureed into refreshing drinks. In Eastern Europe, a sour green soup made with sorrel called Shchavelya Sup is often served with a garnish of sour cream or boiled eggs to balance the tang. Sorrel cooked with water, ginger and other spices is the traditional Christmas drink in Jamaica. And sorrel is often combined with other leafy greens as a tart addition to salads or to the Greek spinach pastry spanakopita.
I asked farmer Ray how hard it was to grow sorrel, half-expecting his sarcastic answer: “Oh, it’s very…” He laughed and explained that it’s a perennial; it just keeps coming back. The particular leaves in the bin on Saturday had over-wintered, meaning they’re planted before the winter for harvesting in early spring. Ray explained that these particular sorrel were sowed last summer, so by the time snow covered them for a few months’ hibernation, the plant had grown full, oblong leaves perfect for using in all kinds of ways now that spring is here. Over-wintered sorrel is preferable to some. It’s got a more tempered lemony tang and is notably sweeter than its younger summer-harvest variety (just like the over-wintered spinach in the next bin).
Ray knows his sorrel. He worked as a chef in various kitchens (including a stint for Daniel Bouley) before leaving the city to start his own farm in New Paltz, NY in 2000. He began dabbling in growing his own organic vegetables in the 1990′s on rented land, and was one of the first local farmers to sell at Grand Army Plaza’s Greenmarket. Now, he raises pigs in addition to a wide variety heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers on his 27-acre farm, and he still makes the commute to the Brooklyn Greenmarket each Saturday. With his culinary background, Bradley grows what he wants to cook – and he knows how to cook it.
How does Ray suggest cooking sorrel? “With fish,” he offered. Roast or grill a whole fish, then sautee the sorrel quickly and spread it on top. You can skip the lemon that way, and benefit from sorrel’s leafy-green nutrients like Vitamin A, as well.
It seems that there is no end to what you can do with the herb. Will Prunty, Executive Chef at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, offered another preparation that took me by surprise. “Make a sorrel butter. I just made one the other day.” For the butter, Will blanches the leaves and quickly shocks them in ice water, to preserve their color. Then he squeezes out the leaves to remove any excess water, finely chops the sorrel, and folds them into softened butter, just as you would with any other herb. You can use the sorrel butter in lots of different ways. One of Will’s favorites is serving it with fish.
Of course, sorrel also makes a great salad green, when combined with other, more benign-tasting ones. Even better to toss in something a little rich, like a buttery cheese or bacon, to balance its zing.
Sorrel is in season now, so be sure to look for it at your local Greenmarket this weekend.
Here are a few more sorrel recipes you might like:
- Spicy Squash Hash with Sorrel (this one’s mine – from Not Eating Out in New York)
- Salmon in Sorrel Sauce (from Food 52)
- Chicken with Sorrel (from The NY Times’ Diners Journal)
Columnist Cathy Erway will be hitting Brooklyn Greenmarkets each week, picking out a particularly ravishing-looking seasonal ingredient, talking to the farmer who grew it, and speaking with a local chef about their favorite simple ways to prepare it.
We think Cathy is probably pretty darn qualified for this mission. She is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, based on her two-year mission to forego restaurant food in the city and her blog, Not Eating Out in New York. Last spring, she launched a rooftop garden at Red Hook’s Sixpoint Brewery complete with egg-laying chickens and repurposed kegs as planters, which is the basis of her second blog, Lunch at Sixpoint. She hosts a weekly podcast on Heritage Radio Network, Let’s Eat In, which has featured guests ranging from Reverend Billy to Mark Bittman. She co-founded the documentary food film screening series, Hungry Filmmakers. She has written for Saveur, The Huffington Post, Edible Brooklyn and Brooklyn Based, and has taught cooking classes at the Greenmarkets, the Brooklyn Kitchen and WholeFoods.