We expanded the herb patch last year following a fragrant, fascinating, and rainy excursion to one of the Jekka’s Herb Farm open days. We returned from our trip, smelling strongly of every herb imaginable, with two huge, damp, paper bags full of baby plants. Salad burnet, caraway, chervil, lemon verbena, orange and lemon thymes, winter savoury, hyssop, wild celery, Moroccan mint, and sorrel. Space for the aromatic collection was made by removing a sprawling conifer shrub that had taken over most of a flowerbed, and emptying a couple of patio pots. While the herbs willingly fill out their allocated spots in the soil, we have been harvesting by the handful and experimenting in the kitchen. We have found ourselves regularly going back to the sorrel, a broad-leaved variety (rumex acetosa), which has proved extremely useful and delicious in cooking.
Sorrel is a cut and come again perennial herb with leaves and stems that can be harvested pretty much year-round. We find it very easy to look after. The main issue to watch for is its enthusiasm for bolting to flower and seed as soon as the weather warms up (see below), which toughens and reduces the leaf growth. This, and the prolific self-seeding that follows, can be deterred with regular harvesting and, if need be, removing the flower stems as they appear. It is also worth cutting the plant back to just above ground level in early spring to encourage fresh growth – new leaves will appear with surprising speed. The unremarkable green leaves look very similar to perpetual spinach or dock, until a glance towards the base of the older leaves reveals stems that are striped with thick lines, the vibrant colour of forced rhubarb. Thanks to the oxalic acid they contain, both leaves and stems taste sour and lemony. It is this feature that makes sorrel a very handy ingredient in the kitchen (so long as not too much is consumed in one go*).
We find it is necessary to give raw sorrel a reasonably good chew to extract its full hit of lemon flavour, so although young leaves are a nice addition to salad mixes, salsa verde, or stirred into grain salads, it is easy to skip over their full flavour potential this way. However, with the addition of a little heat, sorrel really comes into its own. Throw a small handful of shredded leaves and stems into the pot at the end of cooking and they will quickly soften, turn army-green, and give an overall effect that is akin to adding the juice of a lemon. So much so in fact, that it is often hard to tell the difference. They therefore do well in curries, soups, risottos, sauces, and even deserts to add a bright, citrus lift.
We eat variations of the simple pearled spelt dish below year-round, switching the herbs and changing the vegetable topping depending on what is ready to harvest as we move through the seasons. Rosemary and purple sprouting broccoli or burnt cabbage in winter; sage, roasted squash and a handful of salad rocket in the autumn; and oregano and ribbons of griddled courgettes in the summer. The spelt base of the dish is similar to a risotto, but without the need to add the stock gradually or stir constantly. We normally eat it as is, but a few slices of roast or poached chicken would be a wonderful addition (in which case the amount below would probably stretch to serving 4-5).
*sorrel always comes with a gentle guidance note not to consume too much because of its oxalic acid content, so we feel it is necessary to include one here. However, we haven’t been able to find anywhere that specifies how much is too much. We can therefore only assume that you would have to eat large amounts of it and/or consume it very regularly to cause an issue (unless of course you have a health condition that means you need to steer clear of oxalic acid altogether). Luckily, a little sorrel goes a long way, so the likelihood of overindulging should be very slim. It is only a small amount that we use in the recipe below and it is more than enough to pack a flavoursome punch.
Spelt Risotto with Sorrel, Asparagus, and Herb Flowers
- 50 g unsalted butter
- 2 sprigs lemon thyme, leaves picked
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 fat cloves garlic, minced
- 150 g pearled spelt, rinsed
- 150 ml dry apple cider
- 500 ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 30 g sorrel, finely shredded
- A handful of asparagus spears
- A small handful of rosemary flowers, wild garlic flowers, or chive flowers (or a mix of all three)
Melt half the butter over a low heat. Add the thyme and let it sizzle for 30 seconds before adding the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook the onion for around five minutes until softened, then stir in the garlic and pearled spelt and cook for a couple more minutes.
Turn up the heat and stir in the cider. Let it bubble away until all the moisture has been absorbed by the grains. Add the stock, along with another generous pinch of salt. Once the stock has come up to a simmer, turn the heat down again, put the lid on the pan and leave to cook for around 20 minutes, lifting the lid and stirring occasionally until the spelt is cooked through, but still has a little bite to it, and most, but not quite all of the stock has been absorbed. Stir in two thirds of the sorrel, let it wilt, then taste (sorrel leaves vary in intensity, so you may find you don’t need to add all the leaves to get the desired citrus lift), then stir in the rest of the leaves if needed. Beat in the remainder of the butter and season with more salt if needed and some freshly ground black pepper.
While the spelt is simmering, cook the asparagus. Put a griddle pan on a high heat, add a dribble of olive oil, and space the asparagus spears out, single file, along the ridges of the pan. A couple of minutes cooking time on each side will leave the stems al dente and charred with flavoursome golden-black stripes. Season well and keep warm until ready to serve.
To serve, divide the spelt mixture between two wide bowls and top with the asparagus. Scatter over the herb flowers to finish.
Some of our favourite additions and seasonal variations:
- Top with a soft poached egg too (but perhaps omit beating in the extra butter towards the end of cooking as it will be a little too rich along with the egg yolk otherwise).
- For a special occasion, serve alongside roast or poached chicken breast. The spelt risotto is quite saucy, so it will almost act like an alternative gravy for the meat.
- In early spring, leave out the garlic cloves and throw in a handful of shredded wild garlic leaves just before the sorrel is added instead.
- In summer, swap the asparagus for griddled courgette, and use oregano and thyme flowers to garnish.
- In autumn, swap the asparagus for roasted squash or cabbage, add sage along with the thyme, leave out the herb flowers and garnish with a few rocket leaves instead.
- In winter, swap the thyme for rosemary and the asparagus for purple sprouting broccoli or roasted cabbage wedges. Leave out the herb flowers until February when the first rosemary blooms will appear.