One sure sign of spring in my Brooklyn neighborhood is the first sighting of the Mr. Softee truck. A hundred years ago, Jewish residents of the Lower East Side knew it was spring by the appearance of sorrel, or schav in Yiddish, on the neighborhood pushcarts. While the pushcarts are gone, nowadays you can find sorrel at city greenmarkets.
At first glance it can be mistaken for spinach. But sorrel actually belongs to the same plant family as buckwheat. Its signature is a vinegar-like tang similar to that found in rhubarb, it’s botanical cousin.
The appreciation for this sour green is limited to a few key hot spots. One of them is France, where it’s enshrined in such classics as potage germini, or to put it more plainly, cream of sorrel soup. Further east, 19th century Russian cooks found dozens of uses for sorrel, treating it as a stand-alone vegetable, a seasoning, and a base for soups and sauces. The summer surplus was preserved in salt for use through the winter. In the Jewish kitchen, schav was best known as the main ingredient in a soup of the same name, a traditional staple of the Jewish summer diet.
From October to March, our immigrant ancestors were committed carnivores, luxuriating in the bounty of American meat, which they saw precious little of back in the old country. With their limited budgets, immigrant cooks stuck to the cheapest parts of the animal — the brisket and flanken — which demanded long hours of slow simmering. But as the days lengthened and the mercury climbed, Jewish cooks turned their energies from meat to dairy and tenement stoves went cold just in time for the asphalt-melting days of summer.
For East Side Jews, “dairy” was more or less limited to three items. There was sour milk, sour cream and pot cheese or farmer’s cheese, the same fermented milk products they’d known in the shtetls. All three were made and sold on the Lower East Side in neighborhood dairy stores that catered exclusively to the local milieu. Blintzes filled with farmer’s cheese, fried in butter and slathered with sour cream — a symphony of dairy — were one summer staple. Another was the whimsically named “Farmer’s Chop Suey,” a chunky salad of cucumbers, scallions and radish, topped with a generous mound of sour cream or farmer’s cheese, or better yet, one scoop of each. For my Polish-born father growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, sour cream with American canned peaches was a hot weather delicacy.
Schav belonged to the world of milchig or dairy. Always served cold, it hovered somewhere between a beverage and something more substantial. Between meals, East Side Jews sipped their schav from glasses, like iced tea or lemonade. But at the dinner table, bowls of schav were topped with chopped scallions, cucumbers, hardboiled egg and sour cream. A hot boiled potato, eaten on the side, completed the schav experience.
Over the decades, schav fell from the canon of Jewish home cooking, and sorrel vanished from the markets. As a result, contemporary recipes for schav often begin with the caveat that sorrel is impossible to find and can be replaced by spinach. Over the last few years, however, sorrel has staged a modest comeback, and right now it’s available at the Union Square green market in Manhattan. While the product is top notch, the prices would have sent our grandmothers into convulsions. For affordable sorrel, follow the immigrants to Brighton Beach, the city’s largest Russian neighborhood, where every green grocer carries it, though there it goes by its alias, “sour grass.”
In my opinion, a good, basic schav requires just three ingredients: sorrel, scallion and egg yolk. The recipe below is really more of a formula, a set of proportions on which to improvise.
1 pound sorrel, well-cleaned
1 bunch scallions, chopped
4 cups water
3 egg yolks, beaten
1) Tear the sorrel leaves from the central stem and coarsely chop.
2) Combine scallions, sorrel, and water and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer 15 minutes. Turn off the heat.
3) Take a cup of the hot liquid and very gradually stir it into beaten egg yolks. This will keep the eggs from curdling. Add the tempered eggs to the soup pot.
4) Season with salt, a pinch or two of sugar, and, if desired, lemon juice. Chill and serve.
But with 4 pounds of sorrel in the fridge why stop with schav? The inspiration for my sorrel frittata is a Persian egg dish, Kookoo Sabzi, which I recently tried at a friend’s Seder. Baked in the oven, it brings together a forest of fresh, green herbs in a pillowy omelet. As you’ll see, my version is more greens than eggs. Serve at room temperature with good bread and a salad for a light summer dinner.
Sorrel and Green Herb Frittata
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan
¾ cup chopped scallion
2 ½ cups chopped spinach
2 ½ cups chopped sorrel leaves
1 cup chopped parsley or cilantro
½ cup chopped dill
4 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup bread crumbs or matzo meal
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1) Sautee the scallion in the oil until barely soft.
2) Over a low flame, add the spinach, one handful at a time, and cook just until wilted.
3) In a bowl, combine spinach and scallions with remaining ingredients. Season with salt and pepper.
4) Transfer mixture to a greased oven-safe frying pan or pie dish. The smaller the pan the thicker the frittata.
5) Bake for 20-25 minutes or until frittata is set.