BY MARIA REIDELBACH
One of the most interesting things about foraging and home-growing edible plants is discovering new taste treats—flavors you’ve never experienced or even imagined. For example, I’ve hunted wild mushrooms that smell crazily like fresh marzipan and, when cooked, taste like a combination of mushrooms and toasted almonds (the prince mushroom—Agaricus augustus). Elder flowers are delightfully scented and make an amazing floral cordial, and elderberries are sweet and the essence of berriness, and they grow wild all over the Mid-Hudson Valley.
One of my absolute favorite spring treats is the sorrel family (Rumex)—both wildcrafted and cultivated. This family includes delicious leafy greens with an intriguing tartness, signaling vast amounts of vitamin C and other phytonutrients. Cultivated sorrels are trusty perennials and wild members of the family, often called Docks, are everywhere. They all enthusiastically pop up in April, and continue growing throughout the warm weather into fall. It amazes me that we are surrounded by such a wealth of these delectable greens, there for the taking!
The name sorrel is derived from the word “sour,” and it is this distinctive quality that makes all the Rumex family such a superb counterpoint to rich ingredients like eggs, butter and cream, in dishes like risotto, pasta, creamy soups, and with beans and whole grains.
Cultivated sorrels are tender and mild enough to eat raw. Garden and French sorrel are bright green and are great when small leaves or thinly slices larger ones are mixed with salad greens. Blood-veined sorrel has beautiful bright tracery over its green but is a bit chewier—it’s best used in a small, whole-leaved form where it adds an exotic touch to a mixed green salad. I love mixing lots of raw sorrel shreds and minced chives with hot buttered pasta or whole grains like farro or barley for a fast supper dish, or with scrambled eggs or an omelet as I’m rolling it out of the skillet.
Sheep sorrel is one wild variety that is, like its name, as nice as a lamb. Its small, arrowhead-shaped leaves are as tender as cultivated varieties and so it can be enjoyed raw in all the suggestions above.
Other wild versions of sorrel have all the incivility you’d expect from your own wild relatives. Yellow dock and curly dock are ubiquitous weeds, both are bumpy and coarse. Yellow dock has a sketchy pinkish vein running down the middle, curly dock is coarsely frilly. They are happy living in edgy areas, often near gravel and disturbed earth. Raw, they are sour, tough and bitter. But just like our own difficult family members, once warmed up and dressed nicely, these docks become deliciously intriguing—the bitterness disappears and they become tender, tart, a bit nutty and more potent than their cultivated cousins.
Both yellow and curly dock have deep taproots, source of the word “dock,” which has an interesting etymology. One archaic meaning of the word is “tail”; this meaning lives on in the verb form of “dock” to mean cutting an animal’s tail short, and also for cutting a person’s wages. Back in the day, other deep-rooted weeds were also called dock, including burdock, which is a relative of artichokes, not sorrel.
When warmed in a pan with melted butter, shredded sorrel or dock melts into an instant, piquant sauce that is fabulous on fish, chicken, or in an omelet. However, cooked sorrel and dock strangely turn a sad shade of olive drab, so I often mix in some minced chives, parsley, lovage or other green herbs, which taste great and keep their nice green color.
The word sorrel is also used for a couple of unrelated edible sour plants. Wood sorrel is another local weed; its pretty, shamrock leaves and yellow flowers share tartness with true sorrels and they are a charming decorative addition to salads and otherwise strewn raw. Jamaicans serve a tart red drink called sorrel, it’s made of hibiscus flowers.
There are many great ways to enjoy all the varieties of Rumex. Raw cultivated sorrel or sheep sorrel is great sliced finely and added to guacamole instead of lemon or lime (we call it fake-amole). Wrap fish in a few layers of sorrel or dock leaves before baking to create a perfect sauce. It’s said that you can stuff shad with sorrel or dock and bake it low and slow and all the tiny bones will dissolve!
Caveats: when preparing sorrel, to avoid a metallic reaction, use stainless steel knives, and don’t use aluminum or iron cookware. Sorrel has oxalic acid (like spinach and rhubarb), so if you’re sensitive, don’t overdo it.
These books will enable you to identify wild Rumex safely; there is also information online: Foraging and Feasting, by Dina Falconi and Wendy Hollender; and The Joy of Foraging by Gary Lincoff.
For great prep, cooking ideas and recipes: Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider, and The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terrior, Pascal Baudar.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist; reach her at email@example.com or the Stick to Local Farms Facebook page.
Everybody’s Sorrel Soup
Many cultures adore sorrel soup—there’s French Potage Germiny, Jewish Shav, Argentinian Sopa de Sorel, just for starters. Here’s a basic recipe followed by some international variations.
2 tablespoons of butter, olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 quarts of water or vegetable or light chicken stock
3 to 5 medium potatoes, peeled if desired, cut into pieces
salt and pepper
small handful of parsley sprigs, roughly chopped
9 oz. cultivated or sheep sorrel, or 6 oz. small to medium yellow or curly dock leaves
Remove the stems of wild dock. Stack and slice the greens. Warm the butter or oil in your soup pot over medium heat and stir in the onion, sauteing until becoming soft, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, water or stock, a teaspoon of salt (unless stock is salted) and pepper. Simmer, partly covered, until potatoes are cooked. Add the sorrel, dock, and parsley and stir until hot. Puree with a stick or stand blender or a food processor, or push through a sieve. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Shav: omit potato and parsley, use water instead of stock. Don’t puree the soup. Beat an egg yolk in a tureen or serving bowl and stir in the piping hot soup until mixed. Serve hot or cold with sour cream and chopped hard boiled eggs. Potage Germiny: use butter and chicken stock. After pureeing, stir in ½ cup of heavy cream. Reheat gently, if needed, to serve. Sopa de Sorel: add ¼ of a fennel bulb, or some celery, finely chopped, and a grated carrot, use veggie stock, add a bay leaf. Don’t puree, add ½ cup of heavy cream, mash with a spoon or potato masher for a chunky texture, top with sour cream and crumbled bacon.