Columns, Photos

Desperately Seeking Sorrel

Every spring, the New York Times showcases a single sorrel recipe. They don’t draw attention to it, and most people probably don’t give it much thought.

But for the sorrel aficionados out there, it’s the equivalent of the announcement of the Academy Award nominees or the release of college football’s first BCS rankings. It is anticipated.

This year’s recipe was for poached eggs in a buttery sorrel sauce. Last year was a sorrel and stinging nettle soup. Naturally, the recipe triggers a run on sorrel, which makes it even more difficult than it usually is to find some.

I couldn’t get any last season. Not at the Giant. Not at the Rehoboth Farmer’s Market. Not even from Whole Foods in Washington. So when I found myself in Manhattan recently on a Wednesday afternoon and with an hour to kill before my next meeting, of course, I made a beeline to the green market at Broadway and 17th.

There were cartons of fresh fava beans and containers of fresh cow’s milk. Honey to eat. Bees wax to burn. Apple wine and apple cider. And because it’s springtime, bountiful greens. Ramps, yes, but sorrel, no.

I was about to give up, when I spotted a fuzzy young farmer at a tiny organic cheese and herb stall. He was staring intently at me, as if he could sense my desire. I approached cautiously, not wanting to get my hopes up, and asked him if I could see it. With a knowing grin, he hauled it out.

“You like it,” he asked? What wasn’t to like? “It’s big, right?” It was indeed an impressive specimen, I had to say, and a fancy French variety — Blonde de Lyon, to be precise. My mouth was watering. The French, you see, are responsible for bringing sorrel under cultivation to improve the quality and the flavor of the leaves. Until the late 1600s, it was gathered from the wild. Most markets carry only the common type, if they carry it at all. This was indeed a fortunate find.

I purchased the only one he had left, which I then transported around for the rest of the day, to meetings, to a cocktail party, and then back to Washington on the train. It’s currently sitting in a big terra cotta pot in my back yard on Columbia Avenue.

By now, you may have probably surmised that sorrel is a delightful potherb and one of spring and summer’s most special greens. If you haven’t heard much about it, well, that’s because Americans tend not to like its somewhat sour, acidic taste.

The plant’s distinctive taste is due to oxalic acid, which is, in fact, a poison. In small quantities, sorrel is harmless. In large quantities, it can be fatal. But, if you open your mouth and your mind to it you’ll find sorrel to be an adventuresome and tangy taste sensation that can take your taste buds through all of the following: limes, lemons, spinach, rhubarb, cabbage and amaranth.

What other green can do all that?

Personally, I think sorrel is best enjoyed as a chilled soup on an exceptionally hot day and served with a French white wine, preferably a Sancerre or a Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley. While there are many recipes for sorrel soup, I like Julia Child’s the best. It pays proper homage to the leafy vegetable.

One final note: to cultivate a taste for sorrel is a commitment. You must first find it. And then you must buy it. In a gourmet market, you can expect to pay up to $6 a bunch. For a decent sorrel soup, you’ll need about 5 bunches, plus heavy cream, eggs, and chicken stock. Don’t worry that it costs more than lobster bisque. A thirty-dollar soup is a small price to pay for a taste that is like no other.

French gourmet and culinary writer Francis Amunategui once declared sorrel soup rich enough for the governor of the Bank of France. How appropriate is that? You’d have to have access to all the franks of the realm to really indulge your taste for it.

Bon appetit.

Columns, Photos

The Literary Bugs

I thought the box elder bugs were kind of cute, the way they hovered around whenever I sat down to write. They were particularly fond of perching upon the wooden pencils I keep in a cup beside my computer.

When I’d shoo them, they’d fly off, a bit annoyed and sounding like miniature helicopters, only to land a more respectful distance away on top of a blue Tiffany’s box in which I store my bills. Naturally, I named them Holly and Fred, after the characters in Capote’s novel.

They even trailed me into the kitchen to watch me cook.

Such behavior isn’t unusual. Large, hairy carpenter bees follow me about the yard like puppy dogs while I cut flowers. A praying mantis once spent an afternoon perched on my shoulder. Some people attract romance, others, danger. I lure insects. I’d like to think they’re drawn to my artistic energy, but probably it’s the carbon dioxide.

I was showing off a few photos of Holly and Fred on my iPhone, when someone more versed in entomology than I said my admirers weren’t box elders. They were stinkbugs — the distinctive shield shape was a dead giveaway. A box elder bug is elliptical and looks more like a lightning bug with a red X pattern on its back.

I was mortified. Box elder bugs were one thing, they sound sort of British and somewhat dignified. But stink bugs?
Stinkbugs get their names because they stink. When threatened, the bug releases a noxious mix of chemicals from special glands located on the dorsal surface of the abdomen and the underside of the thorax.

There are over 250 species of stinkbugs indigenous to North America, including the green sting bug and the great Southern stinkbug. I had neither. What I had, unfortunately, were Halyomorpha halys, more commonly known as brown marmorated stink bugs and also called East Asian stinkbugs. You can identify them by their unique markings: antennae with an alternating dark and light pattern, and black and white markings along the rear edges of the abdomen.

They’re illegal aliens, these stinkbugs, first spotted in this country in 2001, in Allentown, PA, of all places. Scientists think the first few hitchhiked over in cargo containers from China. Since then, they’ve spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic, where they pose some sort of an agricultural threat to apples, pears, peaches, figs, mulberries, soy beans, and tomatoes. But, nobody is quite sure.

People rant and rave about these graceful, slow-moving bugs that don’t bite or sting. Suck them up in vacuum cleaners, they say. Flush them down the toilet, others suggest. Spray ‘em with a strong pesticide. An invasive pest that emits a vile odor is how most people refer to them. Supposedly, they like to get into drapes, and once they get established in your home they’re hard to get rid of.

The thought of dozens of stinkbugs emerging from behind a chintz pillow during a cocktail party just wouldn’t do. I know how vicious these Rehoboth queens can be with their gossip. I scooped up Holly and Fred and tossed them out the window.

After a few days, though, I started to miss their circus antics and buzzing words of encouragement. Writing can be lonely at times. So, despite the pollen and my terrible spring allergies, I opened the windows and set out a little plate of sliced Fuji apples to lure them back. Halyomorpha halys, you see, have a particular affinity for that fruit.

It worked. Within two days they were back and happily sitting on my pencils again where I now observe them with awe and amusement. Let the queens talk. Doesn’t bug me.