By Deborah Madison from her forthcoming book, Vegetable Literacy
Photography (above) by Carole Topalian and (below) by Carole Ann Sayle
Sorrel and rhubarb are among the first edibles to appear in the spring, though what month that might be depends on where you live and your own particular climate. Their timing is one reason to consider them together, but another is that they are related as members of the family Polygonaceae, a word that means having many (poly) knees or joints (goni). The more common name is knotweed because of nodes, or joints, that reside on the stems of many family members.
There are indeed some vicious weeds in this family and not a lot of edibles aside from rhubarb and sorrel (buckwheat is the third edible). Although residing in different genera, both sorrel and rhubarb are exceedingly tart and, come springtime, have historically functioned as diuretics, cleansing the system of a stodgy winter diet.
It’s not until late May that there’s a luxurious quantity of leaves on my sorrel plant, which is an ordinary culinary varietal bought from a nursery. Each leaf comes to a point at the top, broadens towards the center, then dips down at the tip—more or less arrow shaped. A stem runs up the center and the delicate side veins are visible. As the leaves get larger and coarser with the season’s increasing heat, it’s common to fold them back and rip out the stems, as they can be stringy. But early on, when the leaves are super-tender, this isn’t necessary. Sorrel leaves are so thin that they feel almost like paper. They don’t fare well in plastic containers for they release their moisture, then spoil. Plus you’ll want to use a lot of sorrel when you do use it, which is why having your own plant or two makes sense. You might recently have seen a very small sorrel leaf with red veins in your salad mix. It’s very effective as far as looks go, but seems to lack the tartness of more ordinary-looking sorrel.
One use, especially for very small and tender leaves, is to add them to green salads. Sorrel is very good at brightening foods and surprising the tongue with its sharp little bite, and that’s exactly what it does in a salad. Imagine what it can do with more prosaic foods like potatoes, lentils and eggs. Cream and sorrel are divine when brought together in a savory custard, a soup or a sauce. Think of salmon with sorrel sauce and lentils. And you couldn’t go wrong by tossing a few handfuls of chopped sorrel into a potato soup. No matter how much you use, it cooks down to a shadow of its volume, however the visuals aren’t great—once cooked, sorrel turns an ultra-drab shade of green—not that that should matter. Despite its color, cooked sorrel offers a refreshing tartness with lemon-like acidity that awakens the palate.
If you have a generous supply of sorrel and don’t know what to do with it, you can make a puree to freeze for later use by dropping stemmed leaves into a skillet with a little butter, then cooking for a few minutes until they dissolve into a rough puree. This can become a great asset in your kitchen during the winter when you can break off chunks to stir into lentil soups, mushroom sauces or ragouts, omelets or cream. A dab of cooked sorrel adds a certain spirit to the quiet flavors of winter foods. Keep this in mind for when you have an excess of leaves.
Unlike the delicate sorrel of spring, rhubarb is a somewhat coarser-looking plant—or it can be, as the heat of summer rises. From out of the ground, a fist-like ball gradually emerges in spring, which, against all odds, slowly unfolds into yellow-green leaves that quickly darken. It then sends up a large flower stalk consisting of masses of either tiny cream-colored or rose-colored flowers that look like mist and attract the first bees. These flower stalks are impressive, but you’ll want to cut them down so that the plant can turn to growing leaf stalks for your table. These edible stalks grow taller and longer until one day you find you can cut a few to eat. Be sure to use stalks only and NOT the leaves, which are toxic.
For millennia, rhubarb, which is extremely sour in its natural state, was used as a spring tonic for cleansing the blood, especially in Northern Europe and China, where it thrives, but also in Iran. It was eaten raw (a punishing kind of cleanser I would think), but also cooked into savory soups and stews. Rhubarb didn’t get its nickname of “pie plant” until sugar was available to turn these sour stalks into pies and other sweets, which is mostly how we know rhubarb today: as dessert. And yet, I can imagine that an unsweetened, or lightly sweetened and seasoned, rhubarb compote would work well with fatty meats like duck and pork, and it might still be eaten raw, albeit very finely sliced, and included in a salad where, like sorrel, it would provide a tart surprise for the tastebuds. Truly savory recipes for rhubarb are very hard to find, however. Even most rhubarb soups are of the sweetened, fruit soup variety. An irresistible treatment of rhubarb without sugar however, is the recipe for Rhubarb Khoresh, a chicken stew with Persian spice, found in Najmieh Batmanglij’s beautiful book, A Taste of Persia.
The first slender (and often expensive) deep-red stalks that appear in the supermarket are greenhouse-grown. The field-grown rhubarb that comes on its heels is larger and not so perfectly red or so deeply colored. Some rhubarb varieties, such as the heirloom Victoria, yield stalks that are entirely green, except for a blush of pink at the bases. For some reason this is the rhubarb that’s prevalent in the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where I’ve often heard shoppers ask the farmers, as if it were a peach, “Is that rhubarb ripe?” Once cooked into a puree, the green varieties turn, like sorrel does, into a delicate but subdued shade of green—again, somewhat on the dull side, like spring on a cloudy day. I tend to keep the flavor as unsullied as its appearance, adding only sugar and grapefruit zest and not darkening it further with cinnamon, brown sugar and spice. A green rhubarb puree makes a beautiful tart that you might garnish with Johnny jump-ups, violets or other spring flowers.
Even though both sorrel and rhubarb emerge before other herbs and vegetables, their seasons persist through summers that are not extremely hot (both my sorrel and rhubarb plants survive days that soar to the mid-90s). You can harvest your sorrel and rhubarb plants until the first hard freeze, when they collapse. One farmer I work with feels they’re best then, just before they freeze, which is true of many plants. Despite its long season, rhubarb is hard to find in a supermarket past June, where it’s treated as if it were a fruit to combine with strawberries. Once the cherries and apricots appear, rhubarb is often relegated to the past for the remainder of the year. The farmers market, which is sensitive to true seasonality, is a more likely place to find rhubarb throughout its long season. Then you can pair it with blackberries and raspberries as they come along, and eventually apples, not just strawberries. Or experiment with taking the savory route.