After several weeks of tangy sorrel soup and sorrel tarts, and luscious rhubarb pies and rhubarb wine (plus a host of treats from the Beebopareebop Rhubarb Festival at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society last month), I wondered if the slightly sour, lemony (in the case of the sorrel) tang of these two early-season ready-to-eat plants could possibly be related? To my astonishment, I discovered in Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” the following: “Sorrel is the startlingly sour leaf of several European relatives of rhubarb.”
Though the sour of sorrel is, for some, an acquired taste, it goes well with fish as a natural lemony green sauce. It is also tempered by the sweetness of potato, cream and egg in a soup (that can be eaten warm or cold, which, given the vicissitudes of spring temperatures in Vermont, is appropriate). The sour of rhubarb is tempered with sugar (or your favorite sweetener), or the addition of strawberries and sometimes a sweet flakey pastry, but it too, can accompany meat as a tangy sauce. There is something about the sour fresh taste of these “cousins” that, in my mind, mimics the freshness of the air of early spring mornings. Or maybe it is just that I particularly relish the first food that comes out of the ground after my winter hibernation.
Where the emergence of rhubarb marks the coming of the garden season for some, my patch is only in its second year, but sorrel has been my harbinger of spring for as long as I can remember; my mother’s sorrel soup, a recipe from her mother, graced the table every early May. Back in late March, when the internal debate about whether I can get away with planting peas begins, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to think about unfurling, sorrel, with its red tinged leaves, pokes through the wet leaf mulch in my herb garden. A perennial, it is unfailingly punctual, and comes back each year more vigorously than the year before. There are years when I must divide it (giving some away to friends) so it won’t crowd out the sage next door. My patch of sorrel came as a division from a friend, Martha, 15 years ago, when we started the garden.
The first leaves are a delicious tangy addition to a salad. The larger leaves — and they come quickly — can be wilted into a sauce with a bit of olive oil, or butter, in a pan, or added to soup, or layered into a potato gratin. The older leaves become tough and sourer, and it’s important then to strip away the tough stems when cooking. Don’t let the flower stalks take off, pinch them back. Sorrel must be picked constantly: Since it grows so vigorously, I find myself hacking it back, trying to keep it under control, which means that all summer long, I make small batches of sauce, which I freeze in zip-lock bags, or layer into freezer containers.
Also vigorous, and best grown from divisions from a friend’s patch, rhubarb, can be left alone once planted — so site your patch with a mind to leaving it there. It needs rich soil, and sun. During the first couple of years do not harvest any. Let it grow. (When “picking” rhubarb, tug the stalks out; do not cut them off. The base of the stalk is the most tender). Like the sorrel, nip off the flower stalks during the “eating season.” Now I, like many folks, have always thought of rhubarb as a fruit — perhaps because frequently it comes with strawberries, perhaps it is the addition of sugar — but in fact the part we eat is the stalk of a huge leaf. Only the stalks are eaten, as the leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous. It is the oxalic acid, present in a much-diluted concentration, that gives the slightly sour tang to both rhubarb stalks and sorrel leaves.
After this week and an early season heat wave with temperatures in the 90s, followed by a brief but intense thunderstorm complete with hail, high winds and downed trees, my sorrel is trying to bolt and the annual rhythm of prune, harvest, eat and freeze begins. I’ve concluded that my rhubarb, only two years old, is not happy; I did not plan its siting well. So yesterday I moved it. I will content myself with rhubarb from friends’ gardens, and will have to do so for a couple more years. Got any to spare?
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil)
- 1 pound fresh Sorrel leaves, washed, dried, thick stems removed (yes, this is a lot of sorrel, but, like spinach or mustard greens, it shrinks when cooked)
- 1 good sized yellow onion, chopped roughly
- 3/4 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
- 4 Cups of chicken (or vegetable broth)
- 1 cup of cream
- Optional: 2 eggs yolks
Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter or oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and stir till translucent and limp. Add sorrel, and stir so that butter coats it evenly. It will wilt rapidly, turning a drab olive green. Add potatoes and toss. Add broth and bring to a gentle simmer till potatoes are just cooked.
If you like a rich soup, mix one or two egg yolks thoroughly into a cup of light cream and add to the soup. Otherwise, omit the yolk (s). In fact, you can omit the cream. Salt and pepper to taste. The soup can be eaten warm at this point, or it can be refrigerated and eaten chilled (fabulous on a hot day).
Easy Rhubarb Dessert
- 1 Pound of rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 3/4 Cup of sugar (or less if you like it sour)
- 1/2 Pound of strawberries, washed, hulled, and cut up (if large)
- Vanilla ice cream, or crème fraiche
Place the rhubarb, sugar, and 1 – 2 Tablespoons of water in a medium saucepan. Stir. Simmer gently over low heat, shaking (not stirring) the pan to prevent sticking, until the rhubarb is tender (not long: 5 – 7 minutes). Remove from heat and add in the strawberries, which will soften and juice from the heat.
Serve this mixture at either room temperature, or chilled, with a scoop of ice cream, or a generous dollop of crème fraiche.
Katie’s and Trent’s Strawberry-Rhubarb Hand Pies
Katie Flagg invented these little pies and I invited her to share this recipe for this week’s column.
Make one batch of your favorite buttery pie crust and refrigerate it.
The Filling: Katie adapted Trent Campbell's recipe for the filling for strawberry-rhubarb pie. The strawberries can be left out entirely if the sugar is bumped up slightly.
Chop 2 1/2 to 3 Cups rhubarb into 1/2 inch square pieces. Combine in a large bowl with a similar amount of strawberries, cut small. Add 3/4 cups sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 - 3 tablespoons minute tapioca. Let the filling rest in the bowl for at least 20 minutes.
After your dough has rested and chilled, roll out one half of it to 1/8-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Using a 4 1/2-inch-round biscuit cutter, cut circles out of the rolled dough. Transfer the circles to a parchment-lined baking sheet, and place in the refrigerator to chill for about 30 minutes. Repeat the rolling, cutting, and chilling process with the remaining dough.
Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator, and let stand at room temperature until just pliable, 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon about 1 to 2 tablespoons filling onto one half of each circle of dough. Quickly brush a little cold water around the circumference of the dough, and fold it in half so the other side comes down over the filling, creating a semicircle. Seal the hand pie, and make a decorative edge by pressing the edges of the dough together with the back of a fork. Repeat process with remaining dough. Place the hand pies back on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and return to the refrigerator to chill for another 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the chilled hand pies from the refrigerator, cut a small slit in each and lightly brush with an egg yolk wash (mix 1 egg yolk with approx. 1 tablespoon water for the wash). Sprinkle sanding sugar generously over the pies, and place pies in the oven to bake. Bake until the hand pies are golden brown and just slightly cracked, about 20 minutes. Remove the pies from the oven, and let stand to cool slightly before serving.
These little pies freeze nicely before baking — just pop the frozen handpies out of the freezer, put them in the oven, and let bake a bit longer than usual until golden brown.