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.
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
Minced parsley, dill, chervil, chives (a mix of whatever is available)
½ of a hard-boiled egg per person, diced
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.