Sumac, though, is one of the exceptions.
We used to go to Six Flags amusement park on a semi regular basis with my family as a kid. While waiting on line for the roller coasters, I remember my mother pointing out sumac trees growing on the other side of the fence. She'd reach over and pick some sumac clusters, and we'd suck them, puckering our lips at their sourness, while waiting for our turn on the ride.
We didn't just eat sumac at the amusement park though; my mother actually purchased sumac as a spice from the grocery store, and she'd use it to make a delicious chicken with onions.
"Hold on a second," I can hear you asking, "Isn't sumac poisonous? Why are you telling us to eat it?"
Yes, and no.
It's a case of mistaken identity. Or rather cousins.
Poison sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak are all related to edible sumac, but edible sumac is another plant entirely, looks very different, and is very much edible; it has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes by natives of the regions in which they grow for thousands of years. Speaking of which, edible sumac doesn't grow all over the world, but it grows in North America, Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, and the Middle East, and possibly other areas, but I don't know for certain. Sumac, rhus in Latin, is a close relative of the pistachio and the cashew.
|Staghorn sumac from Hunger |
and Thirst For Life Blog.
The common trait that the edible sumac plants have that distinguishes them from poison sumac is this- edible sumac has reddish, brownish, or purplish berries which are edible. Poison sumac's berries are white. I bolded that and will repeat that point to make it clear- red sumac is edible, white sumac is poison. With that difference in mind, let us proceed.
So, how do you identify sumac?
Well, while I can't say this is true for every variety of sumac, this is what my local sumac and many others look like.
Sumac is a bush or a short tree, usually with branches growing in all different directions. They have branches with little leaves/leaflets on each side of the branch, growing in pairs, with one leaf slightly above the other. At the end of each branch is a leaf growing perpendicular to the other leaves. Each leaf is notched, so the edges look zig-zagged.
But the main identifying characteristic of sumac is its red, maroon, magenta or brown fruit, called drupes, that grow in clusters on the branches. In my opinion, these clusters look not unlike upside down clusters of grapes. Each of these drupes have a hard seed in the middle (which is what drupe really means- fleshy fruit around a hard seed). The drupes of my local sumac are each roughly a drop larger than the size of a peppercorn, and each cluster is between 3 and 6 inches tall, but other varieties of sumac have slightly larger drupes and much larger clusters.
When ripe, the drupes are somewhat wet and sticky. Most varieties of sumac have fuzzy fruit, but the smooth sumac's fruit are smooth (hence the name smooth sumac).
The berries tend to be ripe in the summer.
Some delicious foods I've made with sumac-
The question is- how do you start with what you have on the tree and end up with a spice usable for cooking?
I have to thank Butter for cluing me in on how to do this.
1. To make sumac spice, you first lay your sumac out to dry. I lay mine out on newspaper that I put in a box, which I left open so it had good access to air. Every few days I mix around the sumac, so that the whole thing dries.
2. Once the berry clusters are dry, either all the way, or somewhat, stick the whole cluster into a food processor (but remove all leaves first).
3. Process for a few minutes. This will break apart the fruit of the sumac, chopping it up, but leaving the seeds intact.
4. Put the sumac into a mesh strainer and sift. This is the sumac spice that I sifted out, and now use in my recipes. If I wanted to, I could have ground it further in my coffee grinder, but I see no reason to do so.
This is what remained behind in my strainer after sifting. I stick this back in my food processor and repeat steps 3 and 4 until I get out as much of the sumac spice as I can.
What remains behind, I set aside for use in another recipe, which I'll write about tomorrow.
Apparently, according to a survival video I watched, you can roast and grind the sumac seeds and eat them, but I've never tried it myself. Sumac berries can also be used as a dye.
So glad I was able to find it growing locally. Why don't you go out and go look for some sumac today?
P.S. One note of caution. While sumac is NOT poisonous, there are some people who are allergic to sumac as a spice, so be cautious the first time you use it, making sure that you aren't sensitive to this spice.
P.P.S. If you'd like to read about how sumac can be used medicinally, read some more here.
Would you feel comfortable foraging sumac after this description, or does the fact that a poison sumac exist make you wary of foraging it, even with the reassurances that poison sumac has white berries and edible sumac has red/brown berries?
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