Tasting Spring : Green Borscht (Ukrainian Sorrel Soup)

Spring smells like the musky sweetness of wet soil, the green tartness of young maple leaves, the bitterness of apricot blossoms and the mineral sharpness of rain on my lips. But spring also has a likewise exhilarating taste—the delicate sweetness of sugar snap peas, the metallic pungency of ramps, the milky perfume of strawberries and the floral tartness of rhubarb.  Tart and green is the dominant flavor of spring, and when I see the long blades of sorrel at the market stalls, I know that spring is here at last. I can’t wait to pop a leaf in my mouth and taste its mouth puckering, lemony acidity.

Sorrel cooks down to a similar creamy texture as spinach, but the flavor is intensely green and bold. If you think of using sorrel as an acidic component—think of it as a green lemon!—you will discover that it’s remarkably versatile. A small handful of leaves sliced into fine ribbons is a great accent to salads or soups. Try pureeing some fresh sorrel with cilantro, garlic, and salt and folding it into yogurt for a piquant dipping sauce for grilled shrimp or chicken. A classical winter salad of lentils simmered with olive oil and garlic takes on a vibrant and spring-like guise with sorrel stirred in during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Russian cuisine even features sorrel in a brioche stuffed with a mixture of sorrel and sugar; it tastes remarkably like wild strawberries.

A dish that I always make in spring and early summer, when sorrel is at its best, is a classic from my Ukrainian repertoire. Called green borscht (or shav, from the Polish name “szczaw” for sorrel,) this soup is the polar opposite of its red, beet-based cousin. While the latter is lusty and earthy with its strong flavors of garlic, root vegetables and salted pork, green borsch is tangy and light. The tan ribbons of sorrel, white cubes of potatoes and orange slivers of carrot floating in clear broth form a pretty mosaic. Add to it a diced boiled egg and a drizzle of sour cream, and you have an elegant main course.

There are numerous variations on this soup, which can be served hot or cold.  It can be made with fish instead of meat or poultry stock. The egg can be cooked into the stock itself, in the manner of an egg drop soup. I experimented with all of these variations, but in the end I stick to the version made by my family. I simmer sliced onions and carrots in butter, add chicken stock and potatoes. When they are fully cooked, I stir in chopped sorrel and a generous handful of fresh herbs. The lemony sorrel pairs well with the anise-like perfume of dill, another leafy herb beloved in Ukraine.  I set a small table on the balcony and enjoy my green borsch in the mild May sun so that I can smell and taste spring at the same time.

Green Borscht (Ukrainian Sorrel Soup)

Summer and Fall Variations: when sorrel is out of season, green borsch is made with spinach or other leafy greens like chard.  Follow the recipe as written below, but add greens 10-15 minutes earlier, since they take longer to cook than sorrel. Just before turning off the heat, stir in 3 tablespoons of lemon juice (or to taste) for a tart accent.

An extra flavor flourish is to sauté greens in butter before stirring them into the soup.

Serves 5-6

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, diced in small cubes

1 large carrot, diced in small cubes

2 medium potatoes, diced in large cubes

7 cups chicken stock (homemade or store bought)

1 bay leaf

2 cups sorrel, thick stems removed, sliced in ½” pieces

Salt, pepper to taste

Garnish:

Minced parsley, dill, chervil, chives (a mix of whatever is available)

½ of a hard-boiled egg per person, diced

Sour cream

Method:

Melt butter in a soup pot that would be large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients. When the butter is completely liquid, turn the heat to medium and add onions and carrots. Sauté, stirring from time to time, till the onions become transparent and lose their raw scent, about 5 minutes. The vegetables shouldn’t brown.

Add chicken stock all at once and once it comes to boil, skim the foam and add potatoes. Cook on medium heat till the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork, about 15-20 minutes. Add bay leaf and salt to taste. Add sorrel and watch it turn from bright emerald to khaki green. Add more salt if needed as well as freshly ground black pepper. When sorrel is soft—this should take about 7 minutes, add minced herbs and turn off the heat.

Serve green borsch garnished with more herbs, diced hard-boiled egg and sour cream.  I love to have a slice of buttered rye bread on the side.  In Russia, green borscht is usually served with vatrushki, small cheese filled pastries.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.

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20 Comments

  • Austenfan: Oh, what a timely post. I once had sorrel soup in England and loved it. It isn’t eaten in Holland. It’s actually considered to be a weed. There’s loads of sorrel in the woods right now, so I may have to pick some, and try this out.

    I have been experimenting making soup with Rapini. ( Brassica rapis, or campestris). I fry onions till soft, add Rapini and some hot water, add a few boiled potatoes for extra body, blend it and serve with some sour cream or fat yoghurt and some chopped chives.
    Looking up the translation I noticed that this vegetable isn’t eaten in either Central Europe or the States. It’s one of my spring favourites. May 17, 2012 at 7:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Your rapini soup sounds delicious! I make pasta with rapini and garlic () every spring, when rapini is so sweet and juicy. Or else I just stir fry it with garlic and chili pepper. Now, I have to try your soup.

      Sorrel is worth trying, if you like tart and lemony flavors. If you want to try it in a sweet recipe, then wash it, cook it briefly in the water that’s clinging to the leaves and add sugar to taste. You will have a thick jam. It will taste almost exactly like wild strawberries! May 17, 2012 at 10:35am Reply

  • Suzanna: Wonderful food photography, V.! Sorrel isn’t something that usually turns up in the American kitchen, but it should after reading this post and seeing the tantalizing photography!

    Also, the sorrel brioche has made my mouth water. May 17, 2012 at 8:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Suzanna! I see sorrel in big bunches at the Russian stores almost all year round and at the farmer’s markets in the spring and summer. My local supermarket carries it in small plastic packages, but they contain literally 10 leaves! Sorrel is also delicious when mixed with spinach. It really uplifts the flat flavor of cooked spinach, but the color would remain deep green. Even 10 leaves would be enough for a soup. The flavor is surprisingly strong.

      The sorrel brioche is something I’ve tried for the first time last year, and I’m a convert. It’s so delicious–like a mixture of wild strawberry and kiwi. May 17, 2012 at 10:47am Reply

  • Olesia: I’m a lurker, but this post prompted to comment. I’m also Ukrainian and I’m a big fan of your blog. This post reminded me of my baba’s sorrel borsch. It was my favorite. Sometimes she would add little rounds of lemon into our soup bowls. But when we lived in Ukraine, sorrel would come later than May, and I remember eating this soup on hot summer evenings. Just thinking about it makes me homesick.

    Curious about that sorrel brioche! I’ve never tried it.

    Olesia May 17, 2012 at 12:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: Olesia, nice to meet you! Green borscht is a favorite in our family too. These days my mom often makes it with salmon, which is also very delicious.

      The sorrel brioche was a discover for me too. My Russian friends kept talking about pirozhki with sorrel, and I finally had to try it, and I loved it. Then I discovered that there is an English recipe for a sorrel and gooseberry pie, which I’m planning to make the moment gooseberries are in season. May 17, 2012 at 1:00pm Reply

  • MB: What a timely post! Sorrel used to be more difficult to find but I see it routinely at farmer’s markets this time of year. I went on a rampage in the kitchen yesterday b/c a neighbor brought me a gorgeous bunch of the youngest most innocent turnips you’ve ever seen. Allow me to share a Southern farmer’s market recipe:

    Squeeze the pulp from one head of roasted garlic into a large saucepan. A four cups of chopped turnips (large 2″ cubes), 1 medium onion cut into 8 wedges, and 4 cups of chicken stock. Season w/ salt and pepper and bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes. Puree until smooth w/ an immersion blender, food processor, or blender. Return soup to pan. Add 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg (I use a whole nutmeg and my rasp for this), 2 slices prosciutto cut into 1″ strips, and 1/4 cup creme fraiche or whole cream. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, stir to blend. Garnish w/ freshly chopped green onions! Perfect w/ a salad and crusty bread.

    Thanks for ALL of your recipes, V! May 17, 2012 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much! The soup sounds delicious, and anything that has prosciutto and creme fraiche is bound to be great. :) Small white turnips were another discovery for me once I started checking out the spring markets in our area. A local Italian restaurant serves them in salad–thinly sliced, bulbs and greens + olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. So simple and so good!

      Just checked my fridge, and I have a bunch of turnips, so I will make your soup tonight. May 17, 2012 at 1:04pm Reply

      • MB: That turnip salad sounds like heaven! I will be lugging my cuisinart and slicing blade out of the cabinet in two seconds. Thanks for both recipes today! I will be making the borsh this weekend. May 17, 2012 at 2:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: I always thought that turnips should be cooked, but that salad was a revelation. It’s even better when the turnips marinate a bit in the dressing. They will not be as crisp as when you first dress them, but they will be so juicy! May 17, 2012 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Nancy: Dear V,

    What a sweet memory your recipe resurrected. This was one of many homemade soups lovingly made by my late Mother, which I never appreciated or would eat as a young girl. Sorrel (soup or otherwise) was perhaps a bit too sophisticated at the time for a young palate. Now, you’ve tempted me to try my “adult” version of soup. May 17, 2012 at 2:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: As a kid, I much preferred other soups my mom and my grandmother commonly made–red borscht, mushroom soup, chicken noodle, etc. But as I grew older, I started to appreciate the tart flavors more, and so now the sorrel soup is one of my top favorites. I hope that you will try it too and see if your tastes might have changed. May 17, 2012 at 5:06pm Reply

  • Dianna: My mom was just recently visiting and she made this soup for me – I have not had it in ages! Its sourness and freshness were delightful when they hit my taste buds! May 17, 2012 at 3:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a treat, Dianna! I envy you. :) Before I visit my mom, I always make a long list of favorite dishes I want her to make. Green borscht is one of them (unless it’s winter, when the red borscht is much more appropriate with its rich, hearty flavors.) May 17, 2012 at 5:08pm Reply

  • Andrea: I cannot wait to make this! My dad is visiting in a few weeks, his grandfather (Kyselik) is from Kiev in Ukraine. I will show off my Ukranian roots by making this soup! Do you have any recipes for rhubarb? That is my dad’s favorite, and I’d love to make a dessert to go with the dinner… (Not to add something more for you to do, you are quite a busy lady!) May 17, 2012 at 5:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, please let me know how he likes it! I have a recipe for rhubarb, which is delicious and very easy to make:
      Rhubarb Strawberry Fool with Orange and Vanilla
      It’s like a mousse, into which you fold cooked rhubarb and strawberries. You can use only rhubarb, if you want. May 17, 2012 at 5:38pm Reply

      • Andrea: I had been busy getting ready for his visit, but now that he is here I checked to see if you had responded. Thank you for the additional recipe! I am excited to make them. (Reading your website is like taking an online class that enhances our lives. Also, you may be personally responsible for the sudden run on rose water and orange blossom water; I think many of us are purchasing them per your advice!):-) May 24, 2012 at 1:55am Reply

  • behemot: Thank you for this recipe, Victoria. I am still in Poland ( until Monday) and had a sorrrel soup (zupa szczawiowa) a few days ago. It is not so easy to find it in Polish restaurans these days. It used to be a staple in the past. My late mother in law mada a fantastic one. Her recipe was similar to yours, but for some reasons, she did not add any carrots.
    The egg halves are very important in the sorrel soup, they add some taste to it and their yellow and white coloring look really great in green soup.
    I will have to make it at home in the US.. May 18, 2012 at 8:46am Reply

    • Victoria: In my old Russian cookbooks, the sorrel soup is made without carrots. Carrots and parsnip were added to chicken stock, but then discarded. I doubt my thrifty grandmother would do that–throw away food, what travesty! :) But I also like the sweetness the carrots give.

      Have a great visit! Please let us know what interesting discoveries you make. May 18, 2012 at 11:49am Reply

  • IB-NYC: thank you! i followed the recipe with great results! the pot was half-gone in record time! July 8, 2012 at 11:20pm Reply

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