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by Dori Fern
I fell in love with sorrel about a decade or so ago, when I came upon a recipe for Garden Vegetable Soup in a little-known cookbook called French Vegetarian Cooking that happened into my collection. Ray has sold sorrel, which is different from the hibiscus tea of the same name served mainly at Caribbean restaurants, for as long as I can remember. But until I stumbled on this soup recipe, I didn’t know what to do with it.
Sorrel’s distinctive, lemony flavor is wonderful if well-used, overwhelmingly sour if it’s not. The key is to balance sorrel’s built-in acidity with more lush ingredients. Yotam Ottolenghi, author of the wonderful and award-winning cookbook, “Jerusalem,” speaks to this point in “Sour Pour,” the piece — with recipes — he wrote for The Guardian website:
This startlingly sour leaf, if paired with more evenly balanced flavours, can turn even the most frugal of meals into something very special. As with lemon juice, the more sorrel you use, the more it has to be balanced with something sweet, starchy or creamy…
I’ve recently branched out from my one, go-to sorrel soup recipe. Last week I made the most incredible sorrel mayonnaise. Into a food processor I threw a handful of sorrel, a few big dollops of Hellman’s (I was in a rush to make lunch for my hungry son, but as food writer and Ray-regular Melissa Clark has pointed out , I’ve been known to make my own, too), 3-4 cornichons with a splash of their brine, plus a spot of Dijon, pinch of salt and some black pepper. I wasn’t measuring, but play around and taste for yourself. I mixed the mayo with oil-packed tuna, coarsely chopping in a couple more cornichons, then made the most perfect tuna melt, really, ever.
But still, that beloved Garden Vegetable Soup is my personal rite of spring. It’s like a Provençal Schav, the cold soup favored by Russian Jews (see “The Food Maven” and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket regular Arthur Schwartz’s recipe here). The sourness of this vegetable soup, though, is buffered by spinach and all the greens are stewed to a comforting softness.
The recipe is a fine guide, but don’t let it limit you: any spring green I find at the market may find its way into the mix: beet greens (how anyone could throw away these sweetly tender tops, which I prefer to the beets themselves, is beyond me), garlic chives, spring onions, ramps — if that’s your thing — though they’re probably an overly costly addition to an otherwise humble soup. The one non-negotiable ingredient: sorrel.
Garden Vegetable Soup
Adapted from French Vegetarian Cooking by Paola Gavin
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 leeks, thinly sliced
3/4 pound spinach, shredded
1/4 pound sorrel, shredded
4 cups water (or good-quality chicken or vegetable stock)
freshly ground black pepper
2 egg yolks, lightly whisked (optional)
4 slices/wedges good-quality multi-grain bread, toasted (and buttered, if you like)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the olive oil in a large pot and cook the onion, garlic, leek, and celery over a moderate heat for 5 minutes. Add the spinach, sorrel, water or stock, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes. If using egg yolks for added creaminess, whisk about a 1/2 cup of the hot broth into the yolks to temper, then return the yolk mixture into the soup.
Add one slice of toasted bread to each bowl, then ladle in the soup. Serve with grated cheese.