Along the Grapevine


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Sumac Soda

DSC02869A couple of days ago I wrote about gathering and preserving rhus glabra, or smooth sumac, a departure from my usual rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac. These are only two of the roughly thirty five species of red berried rhuses, and as far as I can tell, their flavours are similar enough that they can be interchanged in recipes very easily. So while I have used the smooth sumac liquid, i.e. berry infused water as a base, you could substitute this with any other edible sumac.

I have made a few natural sodas lately, including tonic water, and the success I have had with all of them has encouraged me to continue experimenting. As sumac is great in a lemonade, tea or mead, I figured it would make a decent soda too. I was not disappointed.

Besides the sumac ‘juice’ as described in my last post, you will need some honey and some starter or bug for the fermentation to take place. The process for making a bug can be found here. Once your bug is ready, you mix the three ingredients in flip top bottles. Ginger is the most common root to use, but I also use dandelion and chicory root where I don’t want a strong ginger flavour as is the case with this drink.
 

My general rule is to mix the ingredients so that the initial mixture is sweeter than you want the end product, since much of the sugar gets used up in the fermentation process, so while there is a high ratio of honey, the drink is still quite dry. However, the fermentation is speedy and effective, so be warned. I try it after three days instead of the usual five, and open the bottles every two days to let excess gas escape. The drink will continue to ferment, so once you are happy with its flavour and fizziness, keep it chilled.
The proportions I used were as follows: 1 cup bug, 1 cup raw honey, 3 1/2 cups sumac juice.

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So here is a soda that is not only delicious but actually good for you. I will be sharing it with the guests at Angie’s Fiesta Friday #104, where I will be co-hosting along with Mila from Milk and Bun. Do drop by for some extraordinary recipes, and if you are a food blogger yourself, feel free to post a recipe of your own. The clear and simple guidelines are outlined here.

 

 

 

 


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Smooth Sumac – Rhus Glabra

DSC02836I have written several posts on staghorn sumac, by far the most common of the red-berried shrubs in this area but by no means the only edible variety. When I accidentally stumbled upon another variety, rhus glabra or smooth sumac, I was interested in finding out just what the differences between the two types is.

First I discovered that this smooth variety is actually more common throughout North America than the staghorn. It is also reputed to be more tart. Both varieties ripen in the late summer, but can be picked well into the winter and are perfect for foraging at this time of year.

The bushes are bare of leaves, so you have to rely on the berries to identify them. The smooth variety looks very much like the staghorn, but without the fuzz on either the berries or the stems. Here are pictures of both for comparison.

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Just as I was contemplating writing this post, I came across an article extolling the medicinal properties of the rhus glabra. While my purpose in foraging is purely culinary, it is still of considerable interest to learn about the health benefits of any of the ingredients I use from the wild and this article helped me understand just what a remarkable plant I was dealing with. It is a wonder that with so much of it around it still remains unharvested.

I treated it the same as I did with the staghorn sumac. I placed the entire drupes in the oven in a single layer at a low temperature (170 degrees F) for a couple of hours until thoroughly dried. Then I remove as many berries as can be easily scraped off with a knife. These berries get finely ground in a spice or coffee mill, then passed through a sieve leaving a citrusy powder which can be used in everything from soup to nuts!

rhus glabra powder

Smooth Sumac on Punk Domestics

The remaining berries still attached to the drupes are placed in a large saucepan and covered with warm water and left to soak for about half an hour and then strained. In order to extract as much of the flavour and volume as possible, I give them a second soak in boiling water. This liquid can be used to make tea or sumac ‘lemonade’ which is the way it was most often used in these parts in the past.

DSC02851Perhaps my favourite way of using the liquid is by making sumac mead, although I will be publishing another drink recipe within a couple of days which gives a whole new purpose to collecting this prolific plant.


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Beans with Sumac (Two Versions)

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Many people keep sumac powder in their pantries to add some lemony tang and colour, particularly to Middle Eastern dishes. I see it being used in an increasing number of recipes, and am happy that this versatile and tasty spice is catching on. What many people don’t realize is that our local staghorn sumac in Ontario, as well as neighbouring provinces and norther states, is the same product. It is plentiful, easy to identify and gather, has a long shelf life, and is easy to turn into powder or liquid. For information on its nutritional value, I recommend looking at this article.

It has been a tough year for gathering sumac in this area – just too much rain. The rains tend to wash away the tasty bits, so I only collect sumac after a long dry spell. The good thing about winter here is there is little or no rain, and the sumac is still good for picking, so I set off last week to restock my pantry. A full five minutes of picking off a few clusters of berries was sufficient to fill a sack to be dried or soaked.

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I have figured out a few things about preserving sumac.

First, when drying, it is simpler to dry the whole cluster. It doesn’t take any longer, and the berries are easier to remove when dry. Just pop them all in a single layer in a low oven or dehydrator and leave them until they feel completely dry, about five hours. Each cluster is made up of several small cones, so if you just pull them apart, you can easily rub the berries off right down to the centre stalk.

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The dried berries need only be ground (I use a coffee grinder) and then sifted.

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The second thing I learned is if you want a liquid infusion, just covering them with tepid water and letting them soak for anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of hours. Strain off the liquid through a cloth. I then repeated this process with more water and the second batch was as dark and tasty as the first. I prefer this method to simmering them, which although gives a deeper infusion, will destroy the vitamin C. If cooking with the infusion anyway, this is not a problem, but when I use the product raw, it is best to preserve its full nutritional value.

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Now that I have a good stock of sumac, I will be posting more recipes using this super local super food. Meanwhile, I did make a recipe for baked beans I have been meaning to get to for some time now. A ridiculously easy and satisfying dish for the winter months, it needed a bit of a makeover to move with the times. The addition of sumac gives it a mildly fruity flavour and richer colour than the original recipe. It is as easy to make a big batch as a small batch, and any extra can be frozen for later use without losing any of its original flavour or texture.

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I divided the recipe in half – to make one vegan and the other with meat. For the meat version, I used pork crackling left over from my lard rendering, but bacon, pork or sausage, raw or cooked, would work just as well.

Beans with Sumac


Ingredients

3 cups cooked navy beans

1 cup onion, chopped

1 (or more) clove garlic, chopped

1/2 cup pork crackling (for a meat version)

1/2 tsp dried mustard powder

2 tsp chili powder

2 Tbsp sumac

1 tsp salt

1 cup pureed tomatoes

2 Tbsp dark molasses

1 cup sumac juice or water

Method

Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan or slow cooker. Bring to a boil and then simmer gently, covered, for 3-4 hours. Add more liquid if they become too dry.

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I am bringing this hearty winter dish to Angie’s 51st Fiesta Friday. You are cordially invited to drop in and join the party, with or without a contribution of your own. You are sure to meet some talented bloggers and find some original and tantalizing recipes. Hope to see you there!


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Staghorn Sumac: Is it Really Edible?

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For those of you who are familiar with the foraged ingredients I use, you will already be familiar with my use of sumac, in powder and liquid form. It is such a versatile flavouring, often replacing imported ingredients like  lemon or pomegranate in sweet or savoury dishes. However, I continue to meet people who are very skeptical, if not terrified of using this fruit, so I thought it worthwhile to review my earlier posts and offer further information on the plant before I create any more recipes with it.

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The reluctance to try sumac is understandable. It is often paired with the word ‘poison’, as in ‘poison sumac’ which contains the same irritant as poison ivy, and we know how nasty that can be. I have not identified any poison sumac in this area, so have no photos to share, but the berries of the poison sumac are white, and the leaves are  more oval in shape, with hairless stems. For some really good illustrations of the poison variety, visit this site.

What is it? Rhus typhina, velvet or staghorn sumac of the Anacardiaceae family, to which mango, cashews and poison ivy all belong. It is a shrub which can grow to several metres in height.

Where does it grow? Native to the northeastern part of North America, it is found in open places, along roadsides, edges of forests, and often in my flower garden.  There are other ‘rhus’ varieties, all with red flowers, and all edible. If you do not have staghorn sumac in your area, you might have one of these other rhuses which might be worth investigating.

How to identify it: Its distinctive soft velvety stalks, which give it its name, distinguish it before the berries appear. The berries, which ripen in late summer and fall are a deep red which makes it stand out.  For some beautiful photos of this plant at all stages of its life, see this site, and you will have little difficulty identifying it when you come across it.

When to pick it: As soon as the berries turn a dark red in the late summer, the entire cluster can be snapped or cut off. They can be picked right into winter, but the colour is not as brilliant. Do not pick it shortly after a rainfall, as the rain washes off the malic acid, which is what gives them their tart flavour.

How to preserve it:  Scrape the berries off without washing, and cover with water. Some directions say to put them in room temperature water, and allow to sit in the sun to make a tea or lemonade – others say to put them in hot water. I have simmered them to get out the maximum flavour, but you should avoid boiling as this can cause it to be bitter because it releases the tannic acid. Strain the liquid through a cloth to remove any of the little hairs. Alternatively, the scraped off berries can be dried, chopped in a blender or food processor and strained through a fine sieve for a powder.

What to do with it: Many Middle Eastern recipes call for sumac powder, and this North American variety is indistinguishable in flavour. The tea concoction can be taken just as is, possibly with sweetener added. The tea can be made more concentrated too, and then used like a pomegranate molasses.

Here are some of my favourite recipes using sumac.

Fesenjun,  a Persian dish traditionally made with chicken (or meat) in a pomegranate and walnut sauce.

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Sumac Meringu Pie based on a recipe for lemon meringue pie

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Portobello Mushrooms  grilled with sumac and balsamic vinegar

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Za’atar, a mixture of herbs, seeds and sumac used in Middle Eastern cuisine.

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So now that sumac season is upon us, I look forward to finding some new recipes to share. In the meantime, I hope I have removed some of the scare factor from this versatile, tasty and plentiful ingredient. If you have any recipes to add, I would love to hear about them.
div align=”center”>Nannyberry sauce on Punk Domestics