Sumac: Finding, Foraging, Cooking and Keeping
As I mentioned in a recent blog (TREND SPOTTING: Foraged Food), I’m not only a foodie, I’m an avid nature lover and a big fan of foraging. It’s a great way to get fresh-as-possible and little-known ingredients. Because foraged food need not travel, be processed, or packaged, it’s environmentally friendly, and besides, it’s a fun way to spend time outdoors. Still, I must admit I’m just a novice, ever learning the art of wilderness kitchen cooking, and ever discovering new wonderful foods that have been waiting in plain sight for me to find them.
Sumac is a perfect example.
As a child who spent much of my time wandering the woods, building forts, and making “potions” from the things I found, my parents were understandably concerned that I might try and eat something that I shouldn’t. Therefore the bright red cones of soft berries I found were strictly, they told me, a play ingredient, for pretend consumption. Crushing them with water in the big plastic bucket I’d carry around, neither they nor I had any idea that the concoction I was making was actually a historical beverage - one enjoyed for its fruity, tangy flavor long before lemons were a readily available food-stuff!
Now commonly referred to as “Indian Lemonade” for the Native Americans who drank the beverage in the hot days of summer, sumac’s use actually predates even their cultures, reaching back in documentation to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. Today though, while Mediterranean cultures have retained their loyalty to the spice, most Americans have no idea what that red stuff being dusted on their gyros might be. Those that have heard of sumac are often misinformed by those who assume all sumac is poison sumac.
I’m hoping this will open some eyes (and mouths!) to this widely available spice growing free all around us.*
*Note: Sumac is related to cashews and mangoes and so it should be avoided by anyone with allergies to either of those foods.
What People Are Saying About Sumac
Max Falkowitz, Writer for Serious Eats:
“Sweet and sour, bitter and fruity, it's the saving grace for the unapologetically lazy cook, a Swiss army knife of finishing touches…. Like lemon juice, it's used to add quick, fresh acidity to grilled meat, cooked vegetables, salads, dips, and grains. But it's much more complex than lemon, reminiscent of perfectly ripe raspberries and tomatoes, with a pleasing bitterness that lingers just a second after swallowing…. Its tartness cuts through rich grilled meats. It provides the necessary acidity for roasted or blanched vegetables.”
Paula Wolfert, Critically Acclaimed Cookbook Author:
“I love the taste of sumac… It is bitter, tangy, sweet, salt. In all very intriguing... Sumac adds another dimension that lemon juice does not”
Tim Midyett, inventor of the celebrated Midyett Rub spice blend:
“The secret ingredient, Midyett says, is sumac. “We get delivery from this local Persian restaurant, Noon-O-Kabab," in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood, "and they always include little packets of sumac," Midyett says. "I tried some, and it had a distinctively tangy umami taste. My wife said, 'You should put that on steaks,' and when I did, I was shocked. It really enriched the primal, animal flavor of the beef. It makes steak taste more like steak.”
Nawal Nasrallah, author of Delights From the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine:
“The taste and pungent aroma of sumac has long been thought to excite the appetite…It's even been found in medieval-era recipes. Often sumac is sprinkled on grilled meat or fried fish; condensed sumac juice, meanwhile, is used like soy sauce--one teaspoon is excellent in a marinade.”
The Quick Guide to Sumac
Flavor Profile: Tart, Sweet, Fruity, Herbal, Umami
Health Benefits: Rich in Vitamin C and Omega 3. Antioxidant, Antifungal, Diuretic, and Antimicrobial. Said to Relieve Indigestion, Improve Kidney Function, Reduce Fevers Brought on By Virus, and Support Healthy Blood Sugar Levels.
Identification: Like rhubarb or asparagus, sumac grows in patches called “clones” which appear to hold many different tropical-looking trees, but are actually a single plant. The leaves are large, lanceolate and serrated. Berries are red, fuzzy or gritty, and grow in tight, erect clusters called “drupes.” Luckily, edible sumac looks nothing like the (fortunately, much less common) poison sumac you might have heard about. Poison sumac has white, waxy, hairless berries which hang loose in grape-like clusters. Even the most novice of foragers will be able to tell the difference.
Location: You won’t find sumac growing in mature forests. It has no tolerance for shade and prefers well-drained, dry areas. Commonly found on roadsides, along rail road tracks and in old fields, there are actually many varieties of sumac with particular strains holding ground in different locations around the world. Here are just of the varieties growing throughout the US:
- Prairie Sumac: Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico
- Mearn’s Sumac: Southern Arizona and New Mexico
- Lemonade Berry: Southern California
- Shining Sumac: Southern half of the eastern US
- Smooth Sumac: Eastern US, Rocky Mountains, Great Plains
- Fragrant Sumac: Mountainous and Rocky Areas in US, Mexico and Canada
- Staghorn Sumac: Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada
Peak Harvest Time: Peak harvest time varies from location to location but typically begins in June, and is best in August. By the time berries have dried on the plant, they will have lost most of their flavor, and are no longer worth harvesting.
Harvesting: Use garden shears to cut ripe - darker is generally, better – berry clusters from the tree. Test a berry to ensure good flavor. Older berries or those too frequently washed with rain tend to lose a lot of their flavor. At their peak, sumac berry clusters may be topped with a sticky white substance that is intensely flavorful. If you found them this way, lucky you!
Sumac Spice from Foraged Sumac
A fragrant tangy, sweet, fruity spice which adds a lemon-like flavor and red color to dishes. Used most commonly in Mediterranean cooking.
- Ingredients: 6 Large Sumac Drupes (or clusters)
- Tools: A baking tray, an oven, a medium-sized bowl, coffee grinder (plus food processor if you wish), a way to contain the results (I just washed and removed the label from an empty spice container we had).
The first thing I wanted to with my sumac was preserve it and ready it for easy use in a variety of recipes. The six sumac drupes I collected filled an ordinary spice container to the brim when packed and I still had around 3 tbsp leftover for a half gallon pitcher of sumac sun tea. I plan to pick and dry more for continued use past sumac’s prime season.
Step 1: The Drying Process. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees. Place your sumac on a baking tray and set on the middle rack in your oven. Leave the oven door cracked just a bit. This will take several hours – around 2 – 5. I just checked on mine periodically, touching the clusters to see if they still felt sticky. While I have read that berries can still be ground while they are somewhat sticky, I was concerned by how moisture might affect the shelf life of my spice and wanted to avoid clumping in the container. So, I waited it out. Once mine were no longer sticky, I removed them.
Step 2: The Refining Process. Simply, the berries need to be removed from the stems. With your medium sized container, run your hands over the stems to loose them. The berries closest to the stem will take a bit more work to separate, but there’s no need for precision. Do your best to keep stem fragments out. Remove them from the container as you see them.
Step 3: The Grinding Process. Now, this was a bit of an experimental process for me. I had read that I should grind my sumac berries in a food processor and then simply sift any larger pieces out. It sounded simple enough. I had an awesome Ninja processor and I had a sifter. Problem was, my Ninja really only ground the outer portion of the berries leaving the seeds contained within them untouched, and my sifter wouldn’t let the well-ground portion of the berries through. It was too, for lack of a better word, clumpy. Luckily, I had Nick (boyfriend) around to suggest I use the coffee grinder – genius. In small portions, it made the seeds disappear into powder. I packed as much as I could into a re-used spice container and left the rest for Sumac Sun Tea.
Sumac Sun Tea / Indian Lemonade
A refreshing historical beverage with a tangy, fruity flavor.
- Ingredients: 3 Tbsp Dried Ground Sumac, 6 Tbsp Sugar or 3 Tbsp Stevia, ½ Gallon Drinking Water
- Tools: Pitcher, Coffee Filter, String or Staple
- Servings: 16 4oz servings
Though recipes I found called for fresh and not dried sumac, 1. I had a significant portion of dried, ground sumac that I couldn’t fit into the container I had and 2. I worried about keeping the solids separate from the beverage when it came time to serve it. (My glass pitcher is pretty, but it lacks a filter.)
I decided to use a coffee filter to hold the spice. Placing the sumac in the middle of the filter, I folded it in half, gathered the edges and tied it tight with a bit of embroidery string. (You could easily use a staple instead, if unlike me, you had one around!) I use this method of infusion when making tea and even broth sometimes.
On the advice of several bloggers, I stuck with a cold water, sun tea approach rather than a hot water immersion. This, they said, would prevent too much bitter flavor from leaching out into the water. I left it out in a sunny spot in the house covered with tin foil for 24 hours.
The initial taste test surprised me – despite its moniker, it reminded me more of a delicious unsweetened hibiscus tea, than lemonade. The flavor was tangy to be sure, but it was also complex, herbal, and there was even something subtly umami about it. It would have been good as-is, but I wanted to try it sweetened, so I used my favorite zero-calorie sweetener, stevia (a naturally sweet herb) – just enough to make it sweet, but not so much that it would overpower the sumac flavor. The result was a gorgeous jewel pink beverage that even my initially hesitant family and friends enjoyed.
Make it and don’t be afraid to experiment! After enjoying many glasses over ice myself, I added some crushed sweet basil from garden and a splash of rose water. YUM! I imagine it would be delicious alongside fruit or other spices as well.
Sautéed Eggplant with Sumac Sauce and Thai Basil
A super simple Asian style eggplant dish my buddy and boyfriend are still raving about.
- Ingredients: 2 Fairy Tale Eggplants, 1 Cup Veggie Stock, 1 1/2 Tbsp Sumac, 1Tbsp Sweet Soy, 1 Tsp Rice Wine Vinegar, 1 Packet Stevia (or 2 Tsp Sugar), 1 Tbsp Olive Oil + more for cooking, A Generous Amount of Thai Basil, Sea Salt
- Tools: Skillet, Bowl
- Servings: 2
This dish was actually inspired by a gorgeous Shanghainese eggplant dish from Saveur that I spotted on Pinterest awhile back. Long slices of light purple eggplant laid stacked across a platter topped with fresh green herbs and swimming in a pool of rich red stock. I didn’t have the time to attempt their techniques or the money to run out a buy the long list of ingredients they prescribed, but I had a spice with a gorgeous red color I was aching to try in a savory meal application.
Step 1: Cook Your Eggplant. Heat a large skillet to medium heat. In the mean-time, cut the tops off your eggplant then slice them lengthwise in half, cut your halves in half, and cut those halves in half (1 eggplant = 8 slices). Toss a little bit of olive oil in the skillet to prevent sticking and toss you eggplant in after. Turn as needed to achieve an even golden color.
Step 2: Prep the Sauce and Basil. While your eggplant is browning up nicely in the skillet, use a small bowl to combine the stock, sumac, sweet soy, rice wine vinegar, stevia (or sugar, or honey, if you prefer), and olive oil. Mix thoroughly and set aside. On a cutting board, stack and roll thai basil leaves and slice in thin horizontal slices (chiffonade). Set aside.
Step 3: Put it All Together. Once your eggplant is perfectly cooked, toss your sauce in the skillet with them and let it continue on the heat for just a minute or two. Transfer portions to shallow bowls and sprinkle with your thai basil. Voila!
Sumac-Spiced Lemon Curd Tarts:
Almond Thyme Crust with Strawberries & Walnut Brown Sugar Crust with Black Raspberries
A bright, summery desert to enjoy with your Sumac Sun Tea. It’s gluten free, but for flavor, not for health.
- Almond Thyme Crust Ingredients: 1 Cup Raw Almonds, Large Handful of Fresh Thyme, 1/4 Tsp Baking Soda, 1 Large Egg, 3 Tbsp Olive Oil, 1 ½ Tsp Salt
- Walnut Brown Sugar Crust Ingredients: 1 Cup Walnuts, 1/2 Cup Brown Sugar, 1/4 tsp Baking Soda, 1 large Egg, 1 ½ Tbsp Olive Oil, 1 ½ Tsp Salt
- Sumac-Spiced Lemon Curd: ½ Cup Plus 2 Tbsp Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (Strain!), 3 Large Eggs, 1 Egg Yolk, 1 1/2 Tbsp Sumac, ¾ cup Sugar, Pinch of Salt, 1 Cup Cold Unsalted Butter
- Toppings: 2 CupsQuartered Strawberries Mixed with 2 Tbsp Sugar, 2 Cups Black Raspberries, 3 Tbsp Sugar, 1 Tbsp Sumac, Chocolate Mint Leaf
- Tools: 16 Mason Wide Jar Lids and Rims,Baking Sheet,Small Stock Pot, Wok, Rubber Spatula, Whisk, Mixing Bowls, Parchment Paper, Rolling Pin, Food Processor
- Serves: 16 Tarts
Step 1: Making the Tart Crusts. I enjoyed the gluten-free nut crust I made for my Earl Gray Tarts so much that I decided I had to play with the recipe once more! This time, I wanted to jazz up the almond crust recipe with some fresh, herbal flavor and I wanted to attempt a crust from another sort of nut. Sticking to the theme of foraged food, I picked walnuts, but this ended up changing the recipe and making it much trickier. Walnuts act very differently than the less-fatty and more protein-dense almonds, and for awhile, I wasn’t sure if the walnut crusts would turn out at all! HOWEVER, in the end, with a little ingenuity, they turned around. In fact, they were everybody’s favorite crust between the two!
Almond Thyme Crust: Grind your almonds in a food processor until they resemble rough flour. Remove thyme leaves from thyme stems and toss them in with the ground almonds. Add baking soda and salt and give the mix one more grind. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in egg and olive oil. Form into a ball, cover with parchment paper, and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Remove and roll with a rolling pin between two sheet of parchment paper. Peel crust from parchment and form to the inside of your mason jar lids removing excess from rim. Set them on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes
Walnut Brown Sugar Crust: Grind your walnuts in a food processor until they resemble rough flour (it’s going to be a bit more chunky than the almond flour. That’s okay.) Add brown sugar, baking soda, and salt and give the mix one more grind. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in egg and olive oil. Form into a ball, cover with parchment paper, and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Remove and roll with a rolling pin between two sheet of parchment paper. Peel crust from parchment and form to the inside of your mason jar lids removing excess from rim. Set them on a baking sheet and put them into the oven. Keep an eye on them. They’ll rise, but don’t panic. Once they’re no longer “gooey,” pull them out a bit and use the bottom of a cup to reform the tart cup. Repeat if necessary. This did the trick for me!
Step 2: Sumac-Spiced Lemon Curd. This is a portion of the recipe is an adaptation of Hummingbird High’s Lemon Cream recipe. This is not a project you can walk away from, so plan on at least 20 engaged minutes! Fill your stock pot with about 2 inches of water and bring it to a boil. In the mean time, juice lemons for lemon juice, straining any pulp or seeds from it. Once boiling set you wok on top the stock pot, add your sugar, sumac, and salt, give it a quick stir, then add your lemon juice, eggs, and egg yolk and start whisking. The danger here is that sugar can curdle eggs if left to sit too long, so constant motion is necessary. Whisk until the mixture becomes thick enough to leaves lines when you drag the whisk through it – about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir occasionally to bring down the heat while you measure out your butter. Transfer the lemon cream mixture to the (cleaned) food processor add the butter and blend until fully combined one tbsp at a time. This will take longer than you expect. Once all the butter has been combined, the sumac-spiced lemon curd is ready. Use a rubber spatula to remove it and scoop it into the tart crusts.
Step 3: Toppings. Add berries to their respective tart crusts. Mix sugar and sumac in a separate bowl and sprinkle the mixture over the berries. Refrigerate for at least 2 to 3 hours. The lemon curd should hold its shape even when sliced. Remove tart crusts from lids by pushing up gently on the lid (which is separate from the rims). The walnut crusts will be a bit trickier than the almond, but it’s doable. I used a butter knife around the outside to loosen them first and spatula to remove them cleanly from the lid once the rims were removed. Garnish black raspberry tarts with sprigs of chocolate mint leaves (or another sort of mint leaf! Or basil!). Bon appétit!