There are indubitable signs of springs out there (besides the 2 minutes of additional daily daytime we are getting now).
For once, the snowdrops are nodding their tiny white bells in the still blustery gusts of wind and then, then!, yellow IS swelling the buds of the early daffodils. But for the ever hopeful kitchen gardener, a much surer sign that spring is coming is what’s budding, swelling, germinating, pushing up or otherwise showing signs of life in the vegetable garden.
Is there something fresh I can sink my teeth in – or at least wake up my taste buds (pun intended) with? Something green? With a little bite? Something… live? I have talked about reliable mache growing outside in winter, but a few other denizens that grow happily enough in a cold frame provide fresh taste at this time of the year: spinach, cutting celery, parsley, arugula, and sorrel are among them. They do not need a cold frame per se, but the protection provided by a cold frame allows them to send forth new leaves much earlier than their unprotected brethren, left totally outside in what is otherwise a generally bleak landscape at this time of the year.
Sorrel might be less well known on the list, so let’s talk about it, a little, shall we?
Sorrel (the botanical name of the genus is Rumex) is a vast family of 200 or so species. Check here if you don’t believe me.
Many people are familiar with Sheep Sorrel aka Rumex acetosella that grows like a weed and that many consider a weed indeed: it grows rampantly via energetic land-crazy stolons that refuse to relinquish the soil they’ve colonized. But it’s edible all right, with a taste that’s tartly pleasant, even if the collecting of its small leaves is quite a job.
What you do want is Rumex acetosa (see what the subtraction of an “ell” can do!) aka Garden Sorrel or Common Sorrel.
Buy it at your better nurseries (it can be sold as an herb or a salad green) or grow it from seeds. Really, it’s easy, the seeds are not finicky in their needs (and it self-seed easily – without being invasive): all the sorrel in my garden is grown from seed.
Start at anytime between now and May. The sooner you start, the earlier you’ll have leaves to eat. Just sprinkle a few seeds on top of the soil. Water. Germination occurs in 2 to 3 weeks in warmish conditions. If you starting indoor, make sure to provide lots of light as soon as the seeds have germinated.
Sorrel is a cool grower that dislikes very hot temperature; sometimes it looks really bedraggled in our Virginia summer, and will go almost dormant. But when cooler fall weather comes, it will grow fresh leaves and will continue to produce leaves even after light frosts have killed off other plants. Only a real hard frost will kill the top growth off, but it will come back the following spring. To extend the harvest into summer, water generously (it does like a moist soil anyway) and give it afternoon shade. Also keep picking!
Except for the occasional slug damage in my garden, it’s pretty care free, winterizing easily in our USDA hardiness zone 6, and will keep going for years. It clumps and reseeds (and, unlike sheep sorrel, does not “run” with underground stolons). Control reseeding by breaking off the flower stalks before they set seeds. Of the two pictures below, the first one was taken last year in very early April (this is sorrel grown in the open, not a cold frame), so you can see how strong it looks already, when the early peonies are barely coming out. The second picture was taken a month later in early May (yes, it’s the same spot) with the cowslips in full bloom.
Young leaves are great in salad, older leaves should be cooked or pureed raw for dressing or cold soups. Sorrel sauce is a traditional sauce in France for poached or broiled white fish. A word of warning about cooking sorrel: firstly, it disappears… it just melts into nothingness, worse than spinach (so typically the little bunch that you find – very occasionally – in the grocery store is grossly insufficient for cooking). Second, it looses its bright granny-smith green color and turn a muddy green (“vert caca d’oie” if you must ask – yes, it’s a color).
How to use sorrel in the kitchen? Here are some ideas:
- Add the young leaves it to green salads where it brings a zingy counterpoint to more bitter arugula or mild lettuces. You can also use older leaves, just remove the central rib, and tear the leaves in small pieces.
- Blend some in your mayonnaise: it’s great for tuna fish sandwich or top a piece of broiled fish with a tablespoon of sorrel mayonnaise just before serving
- Add a few leaves, finely shredded, to an egg salad.
- Cold soup: blend a chopped seeded cucumber, a cup of plain yogurt and a big handful of sorrel leaves with a few sprigs of parsley until smooth. Salt & pepper to taste. Serves 2 (more or less) as a cold summer appetizer. This also makes a very nice dressing for anybody who is trying to cut fat.
- Potato salad: add a handful of finely shredded leaves to your potato salad. To preserve the fresh green color, do that after the potatoes have cooled.
- Cook it with a little cream and pour that on top of new potatoes (boiled, steamed or plainly roasted). How? Finely shred a BIG handful of sorrel leaves (discard any tough stems and ribs). Heat up a cup of cream until small bubbles appear. Add the shredded sorrel. Stir and let on the heat for 30 seconds or so. Pour on top or your cooked hot new potatoes. Miam miam miam!
Find seeds at:
- Territorial – they sell “French” sorrel or Rumex scutatus – same thing from a culinary prospective, except it may be even tarter and the leaves are more rounded, vaguely heart-shaped
- Southern Exposure. Virginians, do note they are in Mineral, VA.
and many others seed vendors with a large selection of herbs, salad and cooking greens (look for it under herbs, salad greens, gourmet greens, Europeans Greens or Greens). Be sure to buy it from a vendor who provides the botanical name. You do not want to end up with Sheep’s sorrel (R. acetosella). Trust me. Really.
If you don’t grow sorrel, have I convinced you? Will you try to grow it this year? Or at least, will you try to eat it is you see it sold? If you do you grow it, how/why did you start growing? How do you use it?
NB: I am sending this entry over to The Well Seasoned Cook who is this week’s host for Weekend Herb Blogging, an event in its third year where posters contribute information about or recipes with – you guessed it – herbs, lots of herbs, and more herbs.