Sorrel is Sorrely Underappreciated

Fight scurvy, grow sorrel!
by C. J. Hirschfield

Fairyland’s Jackie Salas – A Nick Mitchell Photo

The name “sorrel” is derived from the ancient French “surel,” meaning sour. This hardy perennial has become my garden favorite, and I am here to sing its praises.

I first discovered garden sorrel while working at Children’s Fairyland. I didn’t know what it was, but was impressed by how large, healthy, and bright its leaves were—all year long. I asked the park’s landscape supervisor Jackie Salas to identify the plant that lived in our Learning Garden, where kids are taught about growing edibles in urban environments. She told me that she uses sorrel in the garden to talk about different tastes—sorrel being a great example of sour. She grows it right next to stevia, where she has kids try both in one bite—“It’s like a natural Sour Patch Kids candy,” she says. The reasons Jackie loves sorrel? “It’s easy, and it’s pretty—as well as being edible.”

She graciously gifted me with sorrel starts (“you get a robust plant faster than starting with seeds”). She told me that its fleshy leaves hold water well and that it tolerates our dry climate as long as it gets weekly water. My sorrel lives in a large galvanized steel horse trough planter, where it has taken over. I don’t mind at all.

Sorrel originated in northern Asia and Europe; Romans and Egyptians appreciated it for its digestive properties. Quite popular in Europe since ancient times, it is an important ingredient in both French and English culinary traditions. It was celebrated in the Middle Ages as a way to prevent scurvy. Sorrel was introduced into North America by the Pilgrims, who grew it in their gardens. It is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, as well as magnesium and potassium.

I’ve always loved sour foods. When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, the Jewish ethnic section of the supermarket featured a Manischewitz product called shav (or schav), a chilled soup of Eastern European roots. It looked terrible (sorrel sadly changes from bright green to a grayish/greenish hue when cooked), but was very refreshing on a hot day.

Amy Kritzer, writing for The Jewish Week Food and Wine says that schav was a food of survival during the Holocaust. When Jewish immigrants came to the United States, they could still purchase sorrel from vendors on the Lower East Side (where my father grew up), but as time went on, the unattractive soup dwindled in popularity.

Here are my favorite ways to use sorrel from my garden: sliced thinly and used in tabbouleh instead of lemon, torn and used in any salad for a little zest, and in chilled soup. The French love to use it in sauces.

Recipes for sorrel soup usually involve something to thicken it—potatoes, egg yolks, and even avocados. Served cold, it is beautifully tart and hugely refreshing. Many recipes suggest adding a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt on top.

Dallas-based food blogger Evan Grant named schav #1 on his list of the “Five Worst Jewish Foods” in D Magazine, calling it “borscht’s pale green sister.” Harsh!

I know that my profound dislike of cilantro is genetic (true); maybe my love of sorrel stems (pun intended) from my Jewish roots in Eastern Europe.

In any event, sorrel is ridiculously easy to grow in Oakland, is bountiful, and beautiful.

In the American culinary scene, sweet always seems to get all the attention.

Come with me to the sour side—with sorrel.

C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad  News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.