There's an amazing increase in people's interest in wild foraging their foods. Are you new to foraging or interested, but don't know where to start? Sumac is a great place to start this time of year!
Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, is one of the first foods I foraged when we moved back to Arkansas. I knew it was edible but didn't know how to use it so, I did what I often do, I put it in a broth. Making broths are a great way to make every dish you use broth nutritious tastier and more nutritious. As I've mentioned before, eating wild foods increases the variability in our diet, and we know that the greater the diversity of our foods, the better gene expression we have (plus lots more, but I'll save that for another post).
Warnings: Smooth & Staghorn Sumac should not be confused with poison Sumac, which scares people due to contact dermatitis. The two can be easily distinguished: Poison Sumac has large white berries (and doesn't grow in the Ozarks), and Staghorn Sumac has much smaller red hairy berries.
Note: Sumac is related to cashews and mangoes, anyone allergic to those foods should avoid it.
So, why? how? and then what do you do with it? Keep Reading:
Why? Sumac's health benefits, coupled with its lemony flavor and ease of harvesting are enough to get any forager excited. It has high levels of antioxidants, including Vitamin C, and Malic acid. The plant also contains Calcium malate, Iodine, Selenium, and lots of minerals. Lots of wild foods are good for you, but not delicious. Sumac is both, and it's easy to identify.
How? If you haven't found Bo Brown's book, "Foraging the Ozarks," I highly recommend it. with permission from my favorite forager, here is a sample page of his book.
Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, is super easy to identify. They are about 5 feet tall, have compound leaves with~ 15 leaflets, ending in a terminal leaflet. They are typically the first to show Fall color, as early as August, a bright red and orange, with conical-shaped clusters of red berries. These bright clusters of red berries are ready for picking, August - September, now.
What? Now for the fun part, what to do with them.
There are so many options including:
Sumac-ade, tea, Za'atar, broth, jelly, and dry rubs. The most simple place to start is to just place the conical berry clusters in a mesh bag and hang or in a basket on a counter to dry. Dry sumac berries are just as useful as fresh. Once they are dry, you can add to any broth as you would lemon zest, make Sumac-ade or you can blend to make a Za'atar seasoning. Bo Brown has an amazing Sumac Margarita recipe which I highly recommend.
(Note that the picture right is Fragrant Sumac NOT Smooth Sumac).
Za'atar is a Lebanese spice that was introduced to me by my sister-in-law, Sarah, who is an amazing cook. She gifted some to me, and when I asked what to do with it she said, "put it on everything." I followed suit: on beans, hummus, sliced summer vegetables, roasted vegetables, etc. It wasn't for another year that I realized the main spice in Za'atar is sumac. While Za'atar is so multifaceted and dynamic because it's a blend of so many different flavors, textures, and fragrances. Even though it varies greatly depending on where you are in the Middle East, za'atar is generally a combination of savory herbs like dried oregano, thyme, and/or marjoram, with sumac (the most important ingredient of all) and toasted sesame seeds. An authentic Za’atar Spice Recipe, a Middle Eastern spice blend that can be used in a multitude of ways. Use this as a rub for meat or fish, sprinkle it over hummus, Labneh, or baba ganoush; or mix with olive oil for a yummy marinade.
Sumac-ade Aside from its use as a spice, Sumac makes for an excellent drink that rivals lemonade. It’s casually called “Sumac-Ade.” This is a good drink to have around to encourage hydration this time of year, which seems oh so hot & dry. Also, it's the base for that lovely margarita recipe above. Enjoy!
Don't have time or a place to forage? Or you aren't quite confident enough in your identification? They sell sumac at lots of grocery stores too.