Winter drags its frosted heels. Spring will never come, so it seems. The wild birds (those that have not vacated these shores for warmer places) line the branches, seemingly waiting for something. There are signs of change if I look hard enough. Herbaceous plants, early daffodils, eager snowdrops, a few hardy grasses, pushing their fat green fingers to the sky, beckoning the sun.
In the evening I dig parsnips from the chilly earth, lightly seasoned by hail as I do. On my way back to the kitchen through the gathering dusk, I spot a clump of sorrel, a plump-leaf badge of green at the boundary of the veg patch. I stop and pick a handful, pop it in my basket, return to the house and shut the shutters against the gloom. In the sky, the moon peeks through a gap in the ivory cloud-drift.
Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a member of the dock family, which includes buckwheat and rhubarb. The fresh, acidic flavour of sorrel comes from oxalic acid, which also gives rhubarb its tang. Oxalic acid is toxic, although you would have to stuff fistfuls of sorrel into your mouth to be affected (this is a word of caution, however).
Sorrel is a perennial, and can be found on verges, under hedgerows, and in fields. It has dark green, glossy leaves with visible veins, which grow from a central point in a rosette shape. These leaves are pointed and have lobes at the opposite end that are backward-facing and sharply pointed. This is a key identifying feature, as the young leaves can be confused with the poisonous Lords and Ladies plant. As the year goes on, the plant sends up a tall central stem which then flowers in a reddish spike before it goes to seed. As it gets older, the leaves may take on a red hue. Late winter or spring growth is best for the kitchen, as it becomes tougher and more fibrous later in the year, though you can find new shoots throughout much of the year. As ever, if in doubt, don’t eat it.
Sorrel is used as a food throughout much of the world, and has been utilised in folk medicines for centuries. Its flavour is acidic, somewhat like green apple skin, or unripe kiwi. It can be used in salads, soups, stews, anywhere you want a little fruity acidity. It makes an excellent sauce, most often paired with oily fish such as mackerel.
In this recipe, the flavour of the sorrel is matched to the earthy sweetness of parsnip, and makes a satisfying lunch or mid-week dinner. Although it is possible to find wild parsnips, they are very thin compared to the cultivated form, and quite hard to identify.
Ingredients (serves 2)
For the rosti:
1 large parsnip, washed and peeled
1 medium-sized potato, washed and peeled
1 large egg
3 tbsp spelt flour
salt and pepper
For the sauce:
1 large handful sorrel leaves, washed and chopped
1 shallot, finely sliced
1 knob of butter
1 egg yolk
150ml double cream
salt and pepper
Coarsely grate the parsnip and potato. Mix together, and then squeeze out any excess liquid. Add the beaten egg and the flour, along with a good pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper, and mix well. To cook, melt a knob of butter in a non stick frying pan on a medium heat, until foaming. Form the rosti mix by hand into balls, and then press down into the pan to make thin cakes. Fry them for around 2 minutes on either side until crisp and golden – keep an eye on them, they’ll burn easily.
For the sauce, melt the butter in a pan on a low heat, then add the finely diced shallots. Cook until the shallots are soft and translucent, around 10 minutes. Add the sorrel and stir gently until it has wilted. Pour in the cream and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for a few minutes. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the egg yolk until the whole thing becomes thickened and silky. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, pop a rosti on a warmed plate, and spoon the sorrel sauce around the outside. Garnish with a few sorrel leaves.