Eastern Europeans have been foragers since long before ‘foraging’ became synonymous with Rene Redzepi and trendy $160 copycat tasting menus. I grew up in New York City, but my Polish mother has a Northerner’s intolerance for heat and a Pole’s love for woods and mountains and cold lakes to swim in. In the New York summers, when the humidity index crawled up to 95% and the air was thick with the stench of gingko and the sidewalks beat with a steady heat, my mother would escape to upstate New York with me and my sister, while my poor father commuted up on the weekends.
Carless, my mother would take us for walks through cow pastures and up grass-covered ski slopes into quiet woods of maple and pine. Mushrooms were the real prize, and as a child, few things beat the thrill of discovering a fairy ring of fragrant golden chanterelles (although admittedly my sister and I were frequently distracted from mushroom picking by the adorable spotted red efts that came out after the rain). I have lovely memories of sitting on steep grassy hills, a hat shielding me ineffectually from the hot sun, brushing aside the leaves and clover for sweet wild strawberries which my mother would later turn into the most heavenly jam, and slightly less halcyon memories of battling brambles and bees to gather raspberries and blackberries. At dinnertime, my mother would send us out to pick thyme from the fields surrounding the little house my parents bought in North Lexington. I rather liked this task. The ground beneath me was warm and dry, shiny green cricket-sized grasshoppers hopped around my legs, and, being a rather grisly child, I would sometimes catch these and ‘feed’ them to the yellow-and-black garden spiders that lived in my mother’s roses.
In the cool, shadier parts of the fields by the woods grew delicate, tart, spade-shaped sorrel, which I loved to pluck and eat. I hated being sent to gather sorrel, however. My mother used the sorrel to cook sorrel soup, a dish traditionally eaten in Eastern Europe in the springtime, but she needed masses of sorrel to cook sorrel soup for the four of us. It took hours, it seemed, to pick a bucket of the sorrel leaves, but the soup – strongly tart but not sour – remains one of my favourite taste memories of my childhood.
Last week at the little farmers market in Swiss Cottage, a purveyor who sells nothing but fancy greens had a bin of sorrel. When he offered me a leaf to try, the tart crisp taste brought me right back to those endless summers. In this recipe, cooked potatoes are blended with the broth to thicken it slightly (for a more elegant presentation, if you will), but in Poland (my mother tells me), farmers will often make a thin soup using just broth, sorrel, and a bit of sour cream, into which they’ll mix chunks of potato and sometimes carrot. Traditionally, sorrel soup is garnished with hard-cooked eggs. It’s an ideal combination – the rich soft egg yolks coat your tongue and are the perfect counterpoint to the strong, tangy soup. Like all so-called ‘peasant food’, this is simple stuff. Just a few ingredients, mainly things you can grow or gather.
150 grams (about ¼ pound) fresh sorrel leaves
1 liter good strong clear stock (any stock will do – I used beef stock but chicken or vegetable stock will work just as well)
1-2 potatoes, peeled and diced (depending on how thick you want your soup; two potatoes will give it a thicker, creamier texture, whereas with one potato it will be more brothy)
¼ – 1/3 cup sour cream
1-2 teaspoons salt
Fresh cracked black pepper
Hard boiled eggs (one per serving)
Optional: chopped fresh dill or parsley for garnish
Wash sorrel leaves well and remove the stems. Bring half of the stock to a rolling boil and plunge in the sorrel leaves. They will soften and lose their bright colour almost immediately. Remove from heat, and purée using an immersion blender (stick blender). Set aside.
Cook the potatoes in the remaining stock until very soft. Puree with an immersion blender until completely smooth. Stir in the sorrel broth and over medium heat again bring the soup to a gentle boil. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding a few grinds of black pepper.
Put the sour cream in a medium bowl and ladle in about half a cup of soup. Whisk together until smooth (this prevents your cream from being lumpy when you add it to the broth) and then combine with the soup. Bring just to a boil and then remove from heat.
When ready to serve, boil eggs to desired doneness. Serve soup hot or cold, garnished with sliced eggs and, if desired, with additional fresh herbs.