The next time you’re at a farmers market or specialty produce store, look for red sorrel.
It’s a beauty that can garnish anything from a green salad to lemon sorbet to sparkling water.
It’s aesthetically pleasing, expressive, festive, and may we add, a great garnish for Valentine’s Day food and beverages.
Because we’re focused on the beauty of red-veined sorrel as a garnish, we’re not going to cover green sorrel today. As a recipe ingredient (soup, chutney, whatever), it tastes like the red sorrel variety.
Sorrel is a perennial herb with juicy stems arrow-shaped leaves. The leaves can be cooked or served raw in salads and as garnishes (the raw leaves add tartness).
As with all plants, there are numerous varieties—not only within red sorrel and green sorrel, but also
Our favorite variety has red veins (photo #1), which give it the glamour to garnish.
The name sorrel derives from the Germanic word sur and the old French surele, both meaning sour.
It is an ancient herb used by Egyptians and then, Europeans to impart acidity to dishes.
Depending on the variety, it can be refreshing, sharply acidic, or astringent; it can have a spinachlike taste with bitter notes or a milder, lemony taste (the dried leaves lose their lemony taste).
The younger the leaves, the earlier in the season (early spring to late fall), the less acidic. If the leaves are too bitter for you, blanch them for 10 seconds.
Another rule of thumb: enjoy small leaves raw, large leaves cooked.
There are three major varieties of sorrel:
Tea made from Jamaican sorrel is a homeopathic remedy to lower elevated blood pressure, bad cholesterol and as a general detoxifier.
Our first sorrel recipe, perhaps at age 10, was to help our Nana prepare the famed cold Russian soup, schav: sorrel combined with sour cream, lemon juice, chicken broth and egg yolks, and garnished chopped egg, sour cream and scallions.
Schav (shtshav) is Yiddish for sorrel, and it was once a hugely popular summer soup—right up there with borscht.
In European cuisines, sorrel brings lemony intensity to whatever it graces.
MINI TIP: If you have too much fresh sorrel, saute them in butter until they wilt. Freeze in individual ice cube containers until you’re ready to defrost and add them to eggs, grains, vegetables, etc.
Native to Europe and western Asia, sorrel grew wild in grassland habitats. It is commonly cultivated in France, Egypt, and parts of Europe and the U.S.—the areas where it is most popular in cuisine.
The intense lemony tang is also embraced in cuisine from Nigeria to Scotland to Vietnam [source].
Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, is a member of the Polygonaceae family of flowering plants, known informally as the buckwheat family and, outside the U.S., the knotweed family or smartweed.
In addition to buckwheat, rhubarb is another well-known food in the family.
Earliest known examples of cultivation include Egypt, where its tartness was used to offset rich foods [source].
The Romans and Greeks followed suit, to aid digestion of rich foods. Homeopathically, it was used to treat liver ailments and for throat and mouth ulcers.
Even today, it is used around the world to treat scurvy and chronic skin conditions, and to lower fevers. Both the fresh leaves and the flowers are high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A and C†,
Red sorrel is native to Europe and was likely brought to the United States with colonists, where it now grows throughout the country [source].
You just don’t want to grow it in your garden: It’s what’s known as a spreading rhizome, an aggressive-spreading, hard-to-control perennial weed.
*If you steep the whole leaves in boiling water and add sugar or other sweetener, you get a lemon-less lemonade.
†In addition to good nutrition, sorrel also contains oxalic acid, a naturally occurring compound found in greens like including kale and spinach. Oxalic acid is lethal in very high enough doses, but you’d have to eat almost 10 pounds of greens daily to be affected [source].
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