One of the first things I did when I moved to California was plant sorrel in my backyard. It is my kind of veggie: Tart, tender, drought-resistant, indestructible. Ignore it and sorrel thrives. Stomp on it and it comes back stronger. And it’s green almost all year long. So why did it take me so long to make this soup?
Sorrel soup is a classic. It is a harbinger of spring all over Europe, and several versions of it exist from Scotland to France to Russia. Sorrel, like many early-spring greens, is a tonic after so many months of eating roots and preserved meats. It is very high in Vitamin C and reasonably high in iron. It’s tang — I call it “lemonade in a leaf” — comes from oxalic acid, the same thing that make its cousin rhubarb taste the way it does.
Everything about sorrel soup sounded wonderful, save one: For whatever reason, sorrel turns olive green almost the second it touches the heat. Sorrel looks like overcooked collard greens even before it’s fully wilted. And I have a thing about overcooked greens, although I am trying to get over it. I want my greens to shine like emeralds, not look like the side of an Army truck.
Last week I stood in my yard, staring at my gigantic sorrel patch. Will another year pass without me making sorrel soup? I got out my scissors. No, I’d suck it up and deal with the drab.
Now you don’t have to garden to enjoy sorrel. I grow the common garden sorrel that was developed in France centuries ago, but there are several wild sorrel species that live in North America.
Most common are the oxalis family, of which there are scores. Chief among this clan is creeping wood sorrel, Oxalis corniculata, which looks like shamrocks with little yellow flowers. It turns bronze in cold weather and often infiltrates your lawn. There is another sorrel that lives in the West Coast, Oxalis albicans. It too has shamrocks, only they’re larger and the yellow flowers are the color of saffron-and-cream. You see this sorrel a lot in the Bay Area.
In the woods you will find sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella. It has tiny, arrow-shaped leaves and grows in a little rosette. Sheep sorrel can carpet the forest floor. My garden sorrel is a relative of this one.
Since the French really pioneered the cultivation of sorrel, I decided to make my sorrel soup a French one. There are scores of recipes for this soup, but if you want to make a classic French dish you go to the classic French cookbook: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My version of this recipe differs from Julia’s only in that I used wild onions instead of regular onions, and I used more sorrel. Other than that, it is an homage to a master.
As you might expect from a vegetable whose chief attribute is tartness, this soup would be inedible without the cream and eggs to temper it. With them, however, it becomes a bright, smooth wake-up call from a long winter. All it needed for total balance was a good loaf of bread and a crisp white wine. Enjoy!
Sorrel Soup, French Style
You will need a fair bit of sorrel to make this recipe, as it cooks down into a puree alarmingly fast. You can buy sorrel at some fancy supermarkets, a lot of farmer’s markets in the spring — or you can garden your own or forage for it. (If you want to plant it in your garden, you can buy sorrel seed online.) If you can’t find it, substitute watercress and use sour cream instead of regular cream.
Serve this with bread and a nice white wine, or a floral beer like a Belgian.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions, ramps or other wild onion
- 4-6 cups (packed) of chopped sorrel
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 quart chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup cream
- Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the green onions or ramps and turn the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot and cook gently for 10 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, pour the stock into another pot and bring to a simmer.
- Turn the heat up, add the sorrel leaves and a healthy pinch of salt and stir well. When the sorrel is mostly wilted, turn the heat back to medium-low, cover and cook 10 minutes. Stir occasionally. Mix in the flour and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes.
- Whisk in the hot stock, stirring constantly. Bring this to a simmer.
- To finish the soup, whisk together the egg yolks and cream. Temper the mixture by ladling a little soup into it with one hand, while you whisk the egg-cream mix with the other. Repeat this three times. (You are doing this to prevent the eggs from scrambling) Now start whisking the soup. Pour the hot egg-cream-soup mixture into the pot with the soup, whisking all the way. Add the final tablespoon of butter. Let this cook — below a simmer — for 5 minutes. Do not let it boil or the soup will break. Serve at once.