Of all the forageables I have found in my area over the last year, the one that I use most frequently is the staghorn sumac. It is easy to identify, pick and preserve. It also has a relatively long harvesting period, from July to late fall, so I am able to collect at least as much as I need when I feel like it. It has also inspired some of my favourite and most innovative recipes which include among others:
I have also used it regularly in stews, sauces, dressings and pretty much anywhere where a bit of lemon or pomegranate juice would be called for.
For anyone not familiar with this wild plant, at least not for culinary purposes, here are a few pointers.
What is staghorn sumac? A shrub, also known as velvet sumac and sumac vinegar tree, it is of the genus Rhus and a member of the cashew family. It grows in most of Eastern Canada, and is used as an ornamental shrub in Europe for its fall foliage and distinctive fruit.
How to identify it. This shrub is between 1 and 8 meters in height and is commonly found along roadsides, at forest edges and in clearings. It has compound leaves with serrated edges. The flowers are cone shaped clusters with velvety buds. Its thick hairy branches resemble the horns of a male deer, hence the name staghorn. There are poison sumacs, but their leaves have no serrations and they have smooth white berries.
How to use it. For sumac powder, remove the berries from the clusters and dry them in a dehydrator or an oven at about 170 F. Grind them and then sift them. For the juice, it is usually recommended just to soak the entire flower in water for a few hours, and for a more concentrated liquid, remove the flowers and add fresh ones to repeat the process until you get the strength you want. I have also simmered them to get more colour, although I might lose some nutritional value in the process.
I decided to make a recipe for Angie’s Fiesta Friday #28 using the juice, which is most often used in lemonade-like drinks. I thought to mix it with rhubarb since now is the time that these two ingredients overlap for a few weeks. I have always liked the Scandinavian types of sweetish fruit soups, but if you are not a fan of such soups, you can serve it as a drink and call it what you will. However you serve it, it is a deliciously refreshing dish with a beautiful rosey colour.
Sumac and Rhubarb Soup
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp water
1 cup sumac juice
Simmer the rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon and water until the rhubarb is very soft. Strain and return to the pan. Add the cornstarch and simmer a few minutes longer. Add the sumac juice. Serve either hot or cold.