I recently received a request to use a photo of buckwheat that I had posted here, and, re-reading the buckwheat post, I thought how strange the world does turn. You see, I had been thinking about sorrel, and sorrel, rhubarb, and buckwheat are all of the same family (Polygonaceae). This concurrence seems to happen with surprising frequency for me around the December solstice. I wonder if I am simply paying more attention to things now that the garden is winding down? And: anyone out there know the name of the term for this happy coincidence? [Bingbing! Astute commenters Sharon and Diana listed synchronicity and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, respectively. It was the latter that I was grasping for. Thanks, I seem to have dropped my Jung somewhere along the way to the garden….]
While I am at it, does anyone know the term for the way leaves can be easily stripped one way but not another off of a plant’s stem, like most herbs (thyme, rosemary)? Anyone? It would be surprisingly useful cocktail hour conversation with a particular set of people.
Okay, back to sorrel. If you have not heard of (much less eaten) this perennial before, don’t be too alarmed. It is grown for its arrow-shaped, spinach-like leaves, and, much like most spinach, does not travel well. (And before you disabuse me of the idea that spinach travels well because you have two week old bags of the stuff in your fridge, I will remind you that you should not own such a bag of fakery. Home-grown spinach does not travel.) In point of fact, sorrel practically screams when you pick it, and will soon be a floppy mess unless used quickly. This point alone recommends it: it means it’s darned close to what it originally was, unlike, say, your plastic bag of plastic spinach.
So: this is a spinach substitute? Um, not exactly. I would say it is its own thing, and, if it is used as anything in my house, it’s used as a lemon substitute. A good handful of the leaves, de-stemmed, melt down in a buttered pan in less than a minute and form an unctuous sauce appropriate for fish or eggs. We eat a lot of fish and eggs here so this sauce gets a bit of a workout. Its lemony-ness is due to the oxalic acid in its leaves: the bigger the leaves, the sharper the taste. One hears the small leaves are reminiscent of kiwi fruit. I don’t disagree, but that’s a stretch. The leaves are astringent, surely.
Frequently, though, I harvest the leaves (big and small) for our nightly salad. I have had patches of sorrel growing around my gardens for years: it actually liked my Minnesota winters, and I even uprooted it and dragged it here when we moved to Michigan. It loves the greenhouse too, and does not winter-kill. Reliably, it goes to seed each spring, sending up a bunch of stalks that stand six, seven feet in height. The stalks get cut when the seeds turn brown, then it resumes its tireless production of leaves. And: despite the innumerable quantity of seeds, I have not had a problem with wild self-sowing of the stuff.
My chickens love sorrel. Considering that two nonadjacent generations of the birds have figured this out, I think this is a universal and not a learned chicken trait.
Ahem. If you are not one who appreciates the bitter or the sour, you can give sorrel a pass. Although it’s grown throughout the Mediterranean, it’s particularly popular in soups in Eastern Europe and western Russia. This is fitting, considering these people’s preference for sour pickles, krauts, yogurts and the like. I have made sorrel soup: it’s especially yummy if it’s a cream soup (onion/leek, melted sorrel, then heavy cream dumped in just before serving). The cream tames some if its zest. I love it with mashed potatoes and chopped scallions, though, too.
Frankly, the only way I have grown it is to receive plants from others. A quick check to the nearest seed catalog at hand (Pinetree, quickest to the mailbox this year) shows that, indeed, purveyors do sell bunches of seeds (though you might have to look hard: in this catalog, it’s listed as a French vegetable), so this plant is eminently grow-able. Personally, I will never garden without it. Its attributes are many (you can ignore it, it grows heartily, it accepts a wide range of conditions, and, most importantly, is singular in its taste) and its problems are few. Once you have it, you can impress others with your knowledge of it. And, unlike many plants that I have grown for their “why isn’t it grown more” cachet (I’m looking at YOU, Good King Henry), this plant actually is worthwhile.