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I walk through the Saturday farmers market near my home in Brooklyn, N.Y. A heap of beautiful French sorrel leaves for sale catches my eye. Their pleasantly sour, lemony flavor is so good with seafood, steamed vegetables or in soup. I’m not buying though— don’t need to. Every park, community garden and backyard near me —and across most of North America— has some kind of sorrel growing in it.
The most common variety is yellow wood sorrel, Oxalis stricta (other Oxalis species are also edible). Often mistaken for clover, this diminutive plant has leaves with three heart-shaped leaflets, small yellow flowers and seed pods that look like very tiny okra (I call them fairy okra). Oxalis loves to grow where it gets plenty of sunlight, but I find that plants growing in partial sunlight have the tenderest leaves.
When harvesting wood sorrel, gently strip the upper leaves, immature, green seedpods and flowers off the stems. All of these are edible, tender and delicious, but the lower stems are too tough and stringy to be good.
By the way, wood sorrel is unrelated to that French sorrel I saw for sale, but its taste and culinary uses are identical.
The other common wild sorrel is sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella. This one is closely related to that cultivated French sorrel. Like the cultivated sorrel, sheep sorrel leaves are arrow-shaped. But sheep sorrel leaves are much smaller— often no more than 1 inch long. There are sheaths encasing the leafstalks where they attach to the stems. The leaves on the upper parts of the stalks are often smaller and more oblong than arrow-shaped.
Sheep sorrel also loves sun, and often grows amidst the grass in lawns. As with wood sorrel, though, I find bigger, tenderer leaves where the plants also get a little shade.
Any recipe that uses cultivated sorrel can be made with one of the wild sorrels. If you’re using sheep sorrel, you can skip the part of most sorrel recipe instructions that calls for stripping away tough midribs from the leaves. I’ve yet to find a sheep sorrel leaf that was big enough to have a tough midrib.
Sorrel Sauce for Seafood or Cooked Vegetables
1 pint wood sorrel or sheep sorrel leaves
2 tbsp butter or olive oil
Melt the butter over low heat in a medium pot. Add the sorrel and stir until the sorrel leaves are wilted (note: they will lose their bright green color as they wilt, but the flavor will still be great).
Spoon the sauce over the seafood or cooked veggies of your choice.
Sorrel sauce is also a great soup base. Just add chicken or vegetable stock, chopped potatoes, garlic or onion, and salt to taste. Cook until the potatoes are soft, then purée. Serves 2, recipe can be multiplied
You can freeze sorrel sauce for year-round use. I've got a quick video on making and freezing sorrel here.
Always be 100 percent certain of your identification before eating any wild plant or mushroom.