Vinaigrier in French (Staghorn sumac)
(Rhus typhina), famille anacardiacées
This wild edible only came onto my radar for real last summer after a blog reader asked me why I wasn’t mentioning it among all the other wild goodies.. Good question. Meanwhile, I had some in my kitchen that had been foraged, dried and ground by François the previous year sitting there untouched. I had tasted sumac in many Morrocan or Middle Eastern dishes before, I had played with it some as a young cook, but it had never grabbed me, I guess. It was one of those things that got forgotten about in the chaos of my cooking life, where there is an endless list of ever exciting ingredients to deal with, new and old, and so much to do..
Like with so many things, when you forage it yourself, smell and taste it fresh, go to the bother of processing it, said foodstuff gains in importance and wow potential. This time around, it was like discovering it for the first time. Fruity and tart, so complex. Not just acidic and aroma-less like on that poor rendition of Za’atar bread in my taste memory from the early 90’s. I’ve also developed a taste for tartness over the years, so maybe that helps in my new found appreciation for sumac.
Even noble ingredients can get lost in the shuffle especially once the novelty wears off. I typically go through stages with all ingredients, using a chosen one in every which way, only to brush it aside when something else comes along, until I wake up to it again if it is worthy. With the wild stuff being our mission, my favourites there never get dissed, remaining on my menu year round - like wild ginger, crinkleroot, sea spinach, sweetgrass.. With others, it takes their peak season to come around, or perhaps a ‘grand ménage’ to uncover a jar on the back of the shelf or a sous-vide bag at the bottom of the freezer, inorder to reintegrate them into my cooking. Upon review, sumac will not gather dust on my spice rack. Here on in, it will get the special treatment; now that I know all it can be and do, it will be a staple.
That it is an indigenous shrub whose fruit can be picked in winter is another reason it is big on my mind right now. Across the river outside my bedroom window, the deep-red velvety clusters hang from the trees, tempting me on a daily basis, inspiring me to put them to different uses, not to mention reminding me that my stash is fast diminishing with all this tinkering. Skiing by the pretty trees a few weeks ago, François was talking about how we should really get around to a winter sumac harvest to replenish those insufficient stocks we made in fall, when we were too busy to put enough up. Then the river ice broke, cutting us off from the treasure. Well, happily, we ultimately were able to get to it, but with a little more work. My François des Bois had to dawn his snowshoes, cross the bridge at the table champêtre and work his way through the woods and back, requiring a half-day, as opposed to a few minutes out our back door.
Back in the kitchen, we laid them out to dry such as to facilitate rubbing the berries off the comb, and then we dried the berries in a dehydrator for a day, or alternatively in the oven on the pilot light for several days. The dried berries then get pulverized in the robot coup and spice grinder. The resulting powder is what I use to cook with, but we throw the dried berries whole into our tisane for a touch of brightness and acidity. The powder is great in many spice mixes or in a chopped salad, say with beets, celery and endive, or some take on greek style salad or fattouche salad. I’ve used it to kick up and color a coconut foam or froth to go into a Thai flavoured soup replacing the lime, and in fish soup, in berry vinaigrette and granité, in various marinades for fish or poultry, and in sauces (near the end). It fits any time you would add lemon or balsamic vinegar for flavour and lift without necessarily the matching acidity.. I’ve also included it in my ‘wild’ gremolata along with sea parsley, crinkleroot and wild garlic that I slather on roasts and braises like osso bucco, nicely cutting through the richness.
It turns out that the punch is due to malic acid, the same acid present in apples. So funny enough, this is a natural (much more fragrant) source for the powder I fell in love with at my hydrocolloids course in NYC last year. This is more arduous, but definitely more locavore and less expensive than ordering from Terra Spice.. For cooks it is crucial to note that apparently, some people may be allergic, like with vinegar and pineapple.
For the rest of us, it is one of the few non-toxic red berries out there in our landscape, and it’s hard to go wrong because of the characteristic look, although some of the other sumacs in the family (like Poison Ivy) are to avoid, but they have yellow or white berries, and the bark isn’t as smooth. With the good sumac, the berries are a red, fuzzy bunch, and when you break off a branch, the gummy sap turns black. It apparently has several medicinal uses too, including the bark, but that’s not my domain. Sticking to the fruit and gastronomy, there is enough to do.. The aboriginals made a kind of lemonade with it.
So, when a Quebec winter gives you sumac and little else, why not make lemonade!
P.S. I am boosting up my bouillabaisse with it for Valentine’s; I’m convinced it’s an aphrodisiac, at least as much as saffron, oysters and chocolate!