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Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there's no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children's sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.
I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.
In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms - frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.
Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za'atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.
I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.
I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you'd expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.
If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.
Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you've not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.
At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I'm usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.
There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.
The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.
Sumac Pepper Blend
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1/3 cup
2 tablespoons ground sumac
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.
© Thomson Reuters 2016