NEW YORK, May 10 (JTA) – "My mother used to leave jars full of schav in the refrigerator," says a friend of mine. "Because the stuff looked like seaweed, I would run from the kitchen in horror."
Schav, the khaki-colored soup once savored by Ashkenazi Jews, has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Foods of memory simply can’t compete in a world where appearance is everything. While a dwindling number of people recall this murky soup that was usually served cold and often at Shavuot, many curious souls, like myself, have yet to taste their first spoonful.
Made from milk or cream simmered with chopped sorrel leaves, schav is what I imagine the author Isaac Bashevis Singer ate at the dairy restaurants he frequented on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during a lifetime devoted to recapturing the lost world of Eastern European Jews through literature.
Growing wild in northern Europe and North America, sorrel – which rhymes with moral – is an herb with green leaves shaped like shields that infuse a sharp lemony tang into food.
The Yiddish word for sorrel is schav. Because Ashkenazi Jews adored sorrel soup, schav became identified with the soup rather than the plant it’s made from.
"Pounce on sorrel when it’s available," says Barbara Kafka, author of "Soup: A Way of Life," who not only appreciates a good bowl of schav but also cultivates sorrel in her garden. Sharing a brief season with fiddlehead ferns, sorrel can be found at green grocers and gourmet markets during May and June. A harbinger of summer, this herb is in season only once a year, in late spring.
Falling seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot is a dairy holiday that commemorates Moses receiving the Torah and Ten Commandments. Although the exact reason for the holiday’s dairy connection is unknown, some scholars speculate that the whiteness of milk is a symbol of the Torah’s purity, while others claim that the Children of Israel abstained from meat on the day before they received the Torah. There is some evidence that when the Israelites returned from Sinai, they were too exhausted and hungry for the rigors of preparing meat.
Attracted to whatever scarce produce was available to them, Ashkenazi Jews may have chosen sorrel at Shavuot in deference to the holiday’s celebration of greens and first fruits. According to tradition, Mount Sinai was once a lush mountain covered by trees and shrubs, which contributed to the custom of decorating the synagogue with greenery for this holiday.
Because the Jews of Eastern Europe endured the harshest of winters and the blandest of diets – potatoes, gruel and black bread – they ached for tangy foods, such as sour pickles, borscht, and once the weather improved, a refreshing bowl of schav.
After they left the Old Country, many Ashkenazi Jews settled in New York, and later gravitated to bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains where sorrel grows wild on hillsides. Seeing this familiar herb, bubbes swung into action steeping cauldrons full of schav.
"Sorrel is a weed, a pest in the flower garden," says Kafka, explaining that the best schav is made from wild sorrel, which is smaller, tarter and lighter in color than cultivated French sorrel. While it grows, and even after it’s harvested, this herb is a splendid shade of green, but the color changes radically once it encounters heat.
"Sorrel turns a nasty mud color on the stove," says Kafka, claiming that its hideous hue doesn’t kill her appetite for it. "However if an aluminum pot is used, a really revolting mess occurs from the interaction between sorrel and pan." To improve the color, she suggests adding spinach to the recipe. You can also puree a cup of sorrel leaves with 11/2 teaspoons of butter, a method Kafka credits to Patricia Wells, a doyenne of French cuisine. Ironically sorrel soup is a specialty of French chefs, too.
Listening to Kafka, I was intrigued by schav, although I admitted that I was reticent to taste it because my friend Sandy gave its seaweed color such bad press.
"Now that you’re both grown up, you should give schav a try," said Kafka. "It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing."
Although Sandy and I came of age in the 1960s, we came from opposite ends of the Jewish immigrant spectrum. She is the daughter of Czech Holocaust survivors. My great-grandparents emigrated here from Lithuania in 1888.
Sandy grew up in Brooklyn orbiting in a Jewish galaxy. I lived in Briarcliff Manor, an elite suburb north of Manhattan with a tiny Jewish population back then. She strove to be all-American; I was always yearning for roots.
Her mother continued cooking foods she had loved in her Czech village; my mother cared nothing about what our ancestors ate in Vilna. I’ve gotten glimpses of their lives from books such as Yaffa Eliach’s "There Once Was A World," a 900-year chronicle of a Lithuanian shtetl, which disappeared during the Holocaust with its inhabitants. I learned from John Cooper’s "Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food," that Lithuanian Jews shared a predilection for schav acquired from their neighbors.
Kafka’s suggestion to try schav convinced me to buy a bunch of sorrel when it floods the markets this Shavuot and to make a batch for my husband and daughter.
I hope the crisp white bowls I serve it in create an appealing contrast to its questionable color. Perhaps schav will be as good as advertised, or maybe we won’t care for the taste at all. No matter what, I can experience a piece of my heritage that has eluded me for a long time.
Adapted from: "Soup: A Way of Life,” by Barbara Kafka
Yield: 6 cups; 6 first-course servings
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup tightly packed sorrel leaves, cut across into narrow strips 5 cups vegetable stock, homemade or commercially prepared
5 egg yolks
11/2 cups heavy cream kosher salt to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sorrel and cook for 2 minutes, or until it has wilted.
2. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
3. Beat the egg yolks and cream together in a small bowl. Slowly ladle in some of the hot soup whisking constantly, until you have added about one third of the soup and raised the temperature of the egg yolks.
4. Now, while whisking the soup, slowly pour in the egg yolk mixture. Slowly bring to a boil, whisking constantly, to thicken. Season with salt.
5. Remove from the heat and continue whisking as the soup cools. Refrigerate covered, and whisk the soup occasionally until it is fully chilled to ensure proper consistency; adjust seasoning to taste.
SORREL POTATO SALAD
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 Tbsp. spicy brown mustard
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. white wine vinegar
Salt & white pepper to taste
2 pounds small red-skinned potatoes
5 carrots, cleaned & diced
5 celery stalks, cleaned & diced
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
1 tsp. chopped fresh dill
1 bunch sorrel, rinsed
1. Thoroughly whisk dressing ingredients in a bowl. Reserve.
2. Boil potatoes in a large pot of water until tender, about five minutes. Drain well in a colander and cool to room temperature. Cut into quarters, leaving skin on.
3. Transfer potatoes to a large bowl and pour dressing over them. Mince six sorrel leaves and sprinkle in. Gently stir with a spoon, mixing well.
4. Cover and refrigerate. Can be made a day in advance. (Sorrel leaves will darken.)
5. To serve, place salad in an attractive bowl and garnish by crisscrossing several sorrel leaves in the center.
Sorrel can also be used to spice up your favorite recipes:
• Salads: Chop several sorrel leaves and toss with your favorite dressing into a large bowl of salad greens.
• Fish: Buy a 2-pound light, white fish, such as striped bass or red snapper, keeping the head, tail and bones intact. Wash fish and dry with paper towels. Season skin with olive oil and salt to taste. Fill cavity with 2 sorrel leaves. Bake at 450 degrees until skin crisps and inside juices run clear, approximately 20-25 minutes.
• Sorrel Omelet: Whisk 6-8 eggs. On a medium flame, melt 3 Tbsp. butter in a large frying pan. Add eggs. When set, flip omelet over and fill with 2 chopped sorrel leaves and a 31/2 oz pkg. of cream cheese cut into small pieces. Close omelet and continue cooking until cheese melts.