The first time I experimented with sorrel, I bought a verdant, healthy bunch from Robin Gammons' farmstand at the Berkeley farmers' market and took it home to prepare for my lunch.
I heated up a pan to saut it, stomach growling in anticipation. Imagine my dismay when, upon hitting the spattering oil, my beautiful sorrel turned a most unattractive hue and disintegrated into a pile of Army-green mush. I vowed never to torture a bunch of sorrel like that again.
Sorrel can be cooked, however. The secret is to gently wilt the sorrel and cook it until its liquid evaporates.
Amanda Hesser, author of "The Cook & the Gardener" (Norton, $32.50) describes sorrel as "melting ... (it) simply collapses when it comes in contact with heat."
The tangy, sour leaves of this leafy green resemble elongated, heart-shaped spinach leaves. Although sorrel grows wild, two cultivated varieties are generally available -- garden sorrel and French sorrel, which has broader, thicker leaves.
Sorrel's tart, lemony flavor adds a bright note to salads, although it can be too mouth-puckering for some palates. The French prefer their sorrel cooked, either as a delicate soup or as a sauce for fish, poultry or potatoes.
The use of cream can somewhat improve the color of cooked sorrel. A bit of cooked, pureed spinach added to the soup will have the same effect. Cooked sorrel may also be used in place of other greens as an addition to gratins or frittatas.
Robin Gammons, owner of Four Sisters Farm, grows a variety of unusual greens on his five-acre organic farm east of Watsonville. Along with French sorrel, Gammons also harvests purslane, which grows wild on his property, and cultivates mache, shiso, upland cress and dandelion, in addition to red mustard, kale, chard, kiwi, avocados and cut flowers.
Gammons has found a niche for himself by offering customers difficult to find greens.
"After eight years at the farmers' markets, we get a lot of loyal customers who are also interested in experimenting with the purslane and other unusual greens," he says.
Although some greens are slow growing, making them undesirable to some farmers, Gammons says that the ability to harvest from the plants several times without having to reseed the plants makes them a time-saving crop.
"We're a small farm, so we're always trying to figure out how we can best utilize our space, so the bulk of our harvest is cut-and-come-again greens, which provide a continual harvest, saving us the labor of reseeding every few weeks, as you would if you were harvesting the entire plant."
For his these plants, Gammons simply snips off a few young leaves or stalks from each plant, which then continue to resprout before eventually going to seed.
Purslane, which is like long-stemmed, fleshy-leafed watercress, has been used for thousands of years in the cuisines of Mexico, Provence, Asia and the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, it was used in desserts because its juicy succulence helped balance sweet and spicy flavors. It was also used to thicken soups and stews.
Purslane has a tart crunchiness when used raw as a salad green, and is absolutely delicious sauted and slightly caramelized.
Gammons describes the plant as a nutritional powerhouse, high in vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids, and long believed to aid digestion.
Unlike the rest of the greens Gammons grows, which are available nearly year-round, purslane likes warm soil and dies off at the first frost.
Mache, also known as lamb's lettuce or corn salad (because it grows wild in corn fields), has dark green, sweet, mild, finger-shaped leaves that grow in tight little clusters. The sturdy yet tender leaves and unassertive flavor of mache (rhymes with posh) make it ideal for using in salads that contain pungent or crisp ingredients such as radish, apple, fennel, or blue-veined cheeses.
Avoid buying loose leaves of mache, because it is highly perishable. Once picked, it quickly loses its flavor. It's easier to ascertain the age of whole heads than loose leaves.
Upland cress, unlike its close cousin watercress, grows in regular soil, rather than excessively damp ground. Gammons describes it as having a slightly more peppery flavor than watercress. A member of the mustard family, upland cress is a spicy addition to salads, or use as a bed for meat, fish or poultry dishes in which the meat juices can be used in lieu of a vinaigrette.
Dandelion greens can have a slightly bitter, pungent bite. They are an excellent salad base for strong-flavored foods. Try them tossed with a warm bacon vinaigrette, chopped hard-boiled egg and anchovy, or simply dressed with a fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt.
Store these flavorful greens as you would any lettuce, in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, and use within a couple of days.
Four Sisters Farm sells produce and flowers at the following farmers' markets: Berkeley, Menlo Park, Santa Cruz, and Aptos.
NEW POTATO, RED ONION
AND PURSLANE SALAD
Recipe from "The Cook & the Gardener" by Amanda Hesser.
8 new potatoes (about 1 pound), round white or waxy yellow fingerlings, peeled
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine
Coarse or kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion
3 handfuls purslane, stems removed and leaves washed
2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Coarse or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Place the peeled potatoes and bay leaves in a medium saucepan. Cover with water, season with sea salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender when poked with a fork, 18 to 25 minutes. Drain and let cool. Cut into 1/4-inch cubes.
Make the dressing: In a small bowl whisk the mustard, lemon juice, white wine, and a little salt. Make sure the salt dissolves before adding the oil. Whisk in the olive oil, adding it first in drops, then in a slow, steady stream, until it begins to emulsify and thicken. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
In a medium bowl combine the potatoes and onion and pour on the dressing, folding the mixture to disperse the dressing thoroughly. Adjust seasoning as needed and let marinate for up to 2 hours at room temperature.
Right before serving toss the purslane with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Lay a bed of purslane on a serving platter. The potatoes tend to absorb liquid, so you may want to add more olive oil to them and give them a quick toss before placing them on top of the purslane. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and lemon zest and serve. Serves 4.
Per Serving: 397 Calories; 21g Fat; 6g Protein; 49g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 46mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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