A reaction of horror registers on my student’s faces every time I demonstrate a Lebanese recipe using sumac. “PPPPPoison sumac?!”, they exclaim. I assure them Staghorn Sumac, is not poisonous. Rhus typhina grows wild here in our part of the northeastern United States world (you’ll see it growing along roadsides) and it is similar to the spice used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, however, our cultivar is fuzzier. It has a sour lemony taste and is added to salads, used to garnish hummus and babaganoush, and adds some zing to rice and meat dishes.
Native Americans used the drupes (flowering seed heads) to make sumac lemonade. Harvest the seedheads when they are dark red, late July or early August, before the fall rains wash away their tartness. Pluck the seeds from the stems, place on a tray or screen, and air dry for a week. If the humidity is high, they can be dried in the oven at 150 degrees F.
To make the spice, break apart the seeds and place the a spice or coffee grinder. Pulse until the seeds come free from the outer red fuzzy part. Separate out the seeds and discard. Store in an airtight container. If you are timid about foraging along roadsides or want the authentic Lebanese sumac, there are many mail order sources available.
- 6 sumac sumac drupes, large stems removed
- 1 gallon cold water
- Sugar to taste
- Mint to garnish (optional)
- Cheesecloth to strain
- Place the drupes in a gallon glass jar.
- Pour the water into the jar and place in the sun for 4 hours.
- Use a potato masher to press down on the drupes to release more flavor.
- Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth.
- Sweeten to taste and serve poured over ice.
- Garnish with mint, if desired.
The new shoots are also edible but I don’t think I’m that desperate. Maybe if I’m lost in the woods for more than a day or two.