- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Soccer was one of my favorite sports when I was a young boy. My friends and I would play in the fields outside of our town, and I have to admit that I loved the game as much for the chance it gave me to daydream out in the fresh air as I did for scoring goals.

Being someone who always loved to taste things, I’d sometimes spot interesting looking weeds growing among the grasses, and I’d pluck their leaves and innocently pop them in my mouth. (Kids, don’t try this!) One in particular, whose name I didn’t know, really intrigued me. The dark-green, spear-shaped leaves looked a bit like spinach, but they tasted amazingly tart, almost like lemons.

A decade later, when I was a chef in my early 20s at Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, I was surprised one day to see big bundles of those very weeds coming through the kitchen door. My French-speaking colleagues told me they were sorrel, a name that comes from that language’s word for “sour.”

In those early days of nouvelle cuisine, sorrel gained fame thanks to the Troisgros brothers, Pierre and Michel, chefs who transformed it into a sauce for seafood at their restaurant in Roanne. Every other restaurant soon offered its own version, particularly as an accompaniment to salmon, whose rich flavor and deep pink color find perfect complements in the tart green sauce.

One of the most delightful things about sorrel is that it’s the only vegetable I know that becomes a smooth puree all by itself. Expose the leaves to just a little bit of heat in a saucepan and they melt before your eyes. As with spinach, you’ll be surprised, too, by how much the leaves reduce in volume, with a full pound of sorrel yielding sauce for just six servings of fish. As well as with salmon, you can use the following recipe for any mild white-fleshed fish such as sea bass or sole fillets. It would also be delicious with jumbo sea scallops or shrimp.

I like to poach the salmon fillets, a technique that not only emphasizes the simple flavors at work here but also infuses the fish’s flavor into the liquid that will eventually be used in the sauce itself. For the poaching liquid, you’ll find that many good fish stores and supermarket seafood departments sell good-quality frozen fish stock nowadays, and you can also find commercial varieties canned or in the freezer case.

Be sure to reserve a few strips of julienned sorrel to use as a garnish. When sorrel cooks, its vibrant green color becomes something more like olive or khaki-still pretty, but not as vibrant. A light sprinkling of raw leaves will really brighten the final presentation.

FILLETS OF SALMON WITH SORREL SAUCE

Serves 6

12 pieces skinless salmon fillet, about 4 ounces each

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1 pound sorrel

1/4 pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus 3 tablespoons for buttering

3 shallots, minced

1/2 cup dry vermouth

1/2 cup homemade or good-quality frozen or canned fish stock

1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Set them aside.

Thoroughly rinse the sorrel leaves under cold running water and pat them dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. With your fingers, pinch off and discard their stems. In several batches, gather the leaves together in a compact bunch and cut across the bunch with a sharp knife to slice the sorrel leaves into thin julienne strips. Set aside.

With 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter, grease the bottom of an ovenproof saucepan large enough to hold the salmon fillets in a single layer. Evenly sprinkle the minced shallots over the bottom of the pan. Arrange the salmon fillets on top. Pour in the vermouth and fish stock and sprinkle in half the sorrel leaves. With another 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter, grease a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to cover the pan. Place the foil on top of the pan, buttered side down, pressing it down gently to touch the fish.

Place the pan over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. Then, transfer the pan to the preheated oven and bake until the fish feels springy to the touch, about 5 minutes. With a spatula, carefully transfer the fillets to a warm plate and cover them with the foil. Reserve the cooking liquid.

In a separate saucepan, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining butter over medium heat. Reserving about 1/3 cup of loosely packed sorrel julienne, add the remaining sorrel to the pan and saute until it wilts, about 1 minute. Holding a fine-meshed strainer over the saucepan, pour the reserved cooking liquid through it into the sorrel. Stir in the cream, raise the heat and simmer briskly, stirring frequently, until the liquid has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Whisking briskly, add the remaining butter a few pieces at a time until the sauce is thick and creamy.

To serve, arrange 2 salmon fillets on each heated serving plate. Spoon the sauce all around the salmon and drizzle a little on top. Garnish with the reserved sorrel julienne and serve immediately.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

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