There is nothing like multi-tasking. So the next time you are out and about, grab some sumac - its sure to inspire interesting dishes for your next potluck! Sumacs line roadways, trails, and park edges. The berries are ripe in August, and there is typically less rain at this point in the summer (rain washes the tart covering on the berry away), so it is an excellent time to harvest. Be warned that this plant is in the same family as poison ivy, poison sumac, mangoes, pistachios, and cashews. I’m extremely allergic to poison ivy, as well as cashews and mangoes, but I have not had a problem with sumac. If allergic to poison ivy, proceed with caution and wade, rather than dive, into using sumac. That being said, for those that love acidity and tartness, sumac is a delicious find.
There are several species of edible sumac, but I have only harvested staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina L.). Staghorn sumac is abundant in the eastern U.S. and easily distinguished from its highly toxic cousin, poison sumac (white berries/leaves reminiscent of poison ivy). Staghorn sumac has bright red panicles of berries that jut upwards like a spike buck’s antlers (hence the name), and pinnately compound leaves with serrated edges.
Sumac tea is easy to make and tasty. To make it, I add around 5 panicles to a ½ gallon jar and fill the container with boiling water. I let it steep 10-15, periodically mushing and stirring the clusters. People cold brew because the stems can impart bitterness to the tea. I don’t find sumac particularly bitter, but I also love bitter coffee and IPAs. So an easy solution to create a hot brew (preferred because it produces a stronger tea more quickly) without any bitterness is to place the clusters in an old towel or tea shirt, and crush. The berries fall off the stem, and can easily be used in tea. Don’t over manipulate the berries or the tart coating will all come off on your towel.
Once the tea is made, you can drink it plain or sweetened. Or boil down to a concentrate (reduce the 1/2 gallon down to 1/4 - 1/2 a cup) and use it to make a Sumac semifreddo (recipe follows). Sumac is tart like a lemon, but has a distinctive taste reminiscent of berries. Blended with eggs and crème, this semifreddo is creamy, sweet, tart with an interesting, unexpected flavor and a lovely peach color. The basic semifreddo recipe is from Bon Appetit:
1 3/4 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
1 1/4 cups plus 2 T sugar
7 large egg yolks
1/4 - 1/2 cup Sumac reduction
1/4 teaspoon salt
optional: 1/2 cup sliced and toasted almonds
optional: sliced fruit or berries
Line 9x5x3-inch metal loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving some overhang (to fold overtop the semifreddo). If using almonds, sprinkle almonds over bottom of pan. Beat whipping cream in large bowl until the soft peak stage. Pop in the refrigerator while making the custard.
For the custard, whisk 1 1/4 cups sugar, egg yolks, sumac syrup, and salt in large metal bowl to blend and whisk, over a pot of simmering water, until yolk mixture is thick and fluffy and instant-read thermometer inserted into mixture registers 170°F (this takes around 4 minutes). Take the bowl off the heat and beat (best to use an electric mixer) until the mixture has doubled in volume (about 6 minutes). Using electric mixer, beat mixture until cool, thick, and doubled in volume, about 6 minutes. Fold in the whipped cream. Transfer mixture to loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, tap loaf pan on counter top to remove any air pockets, fold plastic wrap over top to cover, and freeze to set (at least 8 hours or overnight). To serve invert onto plate, slice with a warm knife, and serve with berries or other fruit.