Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sorrel: A Sauce Recipe Good Enough to Resurrect a Forgotten Herb

Sorrel Sauce

Wash a quantity of Sorrel & boil it tender in as small a quantity of water as you can, strain & chop it, stew it with a little butter, pepper & salt & if you like it high, add a spoonful of gravy. be careful to do it in a very well-tinned saucepan, or a silver mug, if you have it, as the sorrel is very sour, especially in the spring.

Recipe Provenance

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

About Sorrel

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a perennial herb in the family Polygonaceae. It can be used from spring into early fall, with tender spring sorrel being the best for eating raw in salads. Sorrel from later in the season is fine for making into sauces, such as the one in this blog post. 

Sorrel comes from the grassland areas of the northern Mediterannean coast up into Scandinavia and also in parts of Central Asia. It was brought to North America by the settlers.

Understandably, most Americans who are not gardeners and/or do not have access to a farmer's market selling specialty herbs, will have never heard of let alone tasted sorrel. If you are lucky enough to find it, try it! The sorrel I used for this recipe is from the garden at the c. 1801 Riversdale House Museum in Riverdale Park, Maryland:

About Sorrel Recipes

Sorrel has a naturally sour taste and is best used in soups, sauces, and salads. Here are some historic American recipes using sorrel:

The Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter, (New York, 1803)
The Complete Cook by J.M. Sanderson (Philadelphia, 1864)
Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mary N. F. Henderson (New York, 1877)

However, it can be mixed with other greens in a variety of recipes to offer a subtle sour flavor. Here is an example of  a recipes that use sorrel in a supporting role:

Jennie June's American Cookery Book by Jane C. Croly (New York, 1870)

Cooking in Old Creole Days by Celestine Eustis, 1904

Morris's recipe is interesting because she does not include the normal carrier for the sorrel such as wine or cream as is the way with many sorrel sauce recipes. Instead, she suggests the possibility of adding gravy but does not specify the type. I tried making the recipe with just a lot of butter but found it to be too greasy. The idea of adding gravy to this dish just did not sit well with me. As a result, I have added cream to the recipe as this seemed tastier and a better way to experience the sour bite of the sorrel. This is not the first time one of Morris's recipes needed to be altered to make it work better, and I doubt it will be the last!

Sorrel Sauce: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: 1/2 Cup

  • 1/4 Pound Sorrel Leaves (make sure all stems and center ribs are removed)
  • 2 Tablespoons Butter
  • 1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
  • Salt and Pepper, to Taste
  1. Wash the sorrel and rip apart the greens into smaller pieces.
  2. Fill a large stockpot halfway to the top with water and bring to a boil. Add the sorrel leaves, cover, reduce heat and simmer for just about 2-3 minutes. The sorrel will be ready when the leaves wilt in the same way spinach wilts (it will lose a lot of volume).
  3. Drain the water from the sorrel. Place the sorrel in a colander and press out all of the water using a spoon or rubber spatula.
  4. Finely chop the sorrel.
  5. Melt the butter in a large (non-reactive) skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped sorrel and saute for about 3 minutes. Add the cream, salt and pepper and whisk swiftly. Bring to a simmer and then immediately remove from the heat.
  6. You can leave it as is, or, you can use an immersion blender to puree it (as I did). Note, if you blend it you can skip step 4.
  7. Serve with lamb, goose, poultry, veal, beef or fish.

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