Wild Things in October - Sumac
The featured ingredient for the Wild Things Foraging Challenge in the month of October is sumac. Whoa, Nelly! Do not fear this sumac, it's not the same one that causes icky allergic rashes. Edible varieties, including smooth and staghorn sumac, are safe. In fact, the fuzzy berries of sumac offer up a tart treat which has wide use in culinary applications. The secret lies in that fuzz, for it's the part which possesses the tart lemony flavor which makes it so great in cooking. Be sure to harvest sumac before the rains and snows wash the fuzz from the berries, otherwise they are flavorless.
How to Identify Sumac
The shrubs of edible varieties of sumac can be from 3-20' tall, and always have pinnate compound leaves (leaves appear in pairs down a central stalk), and end in a terminal leaflet. The leaflets tend to be long and toothed, and give sumac branches the appearance of feathery fronds. The fruit of all non-poisonous sumac appear in tightly packed clusters with small seeds. The smooth sumac of my area has easily identifiable red pyramidal clusters of fruit at the end of branches. Sumac tends to grow in clusters, or thickets, with the oldest tallest tree in the center.
How to Collect Sumac
Wait until the fruit of sumac have turned bright pinkish-red. Break away a few tiny berries and taste them to make certain they are nice and tart, as this is what you are after. Once you've found clusters of tart berries, simply cut them off with a pair of scissors.
Sumac berries can be used fresh, and they dry nicely as well. Every step of the way, just be certain to protect the fuzziness of the sumac, because that is where all the flavor is.
Cooking with Sumac
The flavor of sumac is a straight forward tartness - think lemon. Sumac can be added to recipes as a part of a spice mix. Alternately, the berries can be steeped to make a tea, which can also be used in recipes. To do so, simply place the berries in cold water (hot water can result in a tannic mess), reach in and gently rub them together with your hands to help distribute the fuzzies, and let it infuse for a few hours. Strain out the solids, and you are left with a gorgeous pink tea that can be sweetened to make sumac-ade, or even made into a syrup. I like to boil sumac tea over a medium heat until it has reduced by half, to further concentrate it's flavor.
If you are a big fan of curds like I am, you'll love putting a twist on the classic by making sumac curd. Simply substitute a reduced sumac infusion for the lemon juice in my recipe for Lemon Curd. Just don't make the mistake of leaving a bowl of it on the counter to photograph, and then forget it's there. Because you might wake up in a panic at 3am, only to discover that your cat has helped himself to it, and none remains for pictures. You know, hypothetically, not that I'm speaking from experience.
So, are you ready to play along? Wild Things is a foraging recipe challenge, and you are invited to participate! Just send a link to your recipe by the end of the month. firstname.lastname@example.org