Along the Grapevine


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Sumac and Rhubarb Soup

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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:

Sumac DrinkSumac powder and molassesRice PuddingSumac Meringue PieFermented Hummus with SumacSumac and VegetablesZa’atar

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.

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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.

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Sumac and Rhubarb Soup

  • Servings: 4
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Ingredients

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

Method

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.

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Sumac Recipes

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Since I posted my first recipe for sumac in the early summer, I have had time to figure out other ways in which to use this lemony goodness. The sumac I refer to is the Staghorn Sumac. Unlike the sumac with white flowers, it is not poisonous. However, try a little at first, as some people may have allergies to it.

First, I made dried sumac powder. I have been buying this for years from Middle Eastern and Asian shops, and always wondered if I could duplicate it with our own sumac.  So that is one puzzle solved. I generally use it in place of lemon in spicy curries, tagine, soups etc, but always parsimoniously because it is hard to find. Now I can use it with abandon.

To make the powder, simply pick or scrape off the berries, and place them on a cookie sheet in a 175 F oven until they feel completely dry.  This will take probably 4 to 6 hours, depending on how much space they have. I prefer to err on the side of too long, and keep an eye on them. Then put them in a food processor or blender and chop them up as finely as possible, and pass them through a sieve.

Dried sumac

My next project was sumac molasses. Not really molasses, but I wanted to replace my pomegranate molasses with something made from local ingredients. I used 6 cups of firmly packed fresh sumac berries, covered them in water and pressed them tightly down so that I would need the minimum amount of water. I simmered them covered for about half an hour to an hour. I strained off the liquid and added it to 1 cup of brown sugar, then simmered it until all the sugar was dissolved.

The purpose for this ‘molasses’ was for use in some Middle Eastern recipes, and in particular a Persian recipe called Fesenjun. I was first introduced to this by my father when he returned from working in Iran, and I later learned to make different versions of it myself. It is simply a sauce made of walnuts and pomegranate juice (or molasses) cooked with duck, chicken, and I believe other meats.

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I used a whole chicken because that is what I had to work with, but pieces or fillets would work just as well. Just adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Fesenjun

1 chicken

oil for frying

2 onions, diced

1 cup walnuts, coarsely ground

1 cup sumac molasses

salt and pepper to taste

Brown the chicken on all sides in some oil in a roasting pan. Remove the chicken, pour out any excess oil except a little to which you add the onions. Fry until soft and add the walnuts. Fry for another two minutes. Add the sumac and salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the pot, cover, and place in a preheated oven at 325 F. It took about two hours, and the last half hour I removed the lid.

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Traditionally this is served with rice, but I had potatoes, pickled plums and mixed steamed greens from the garden. I am pleased to report that the sumac molasses worked very well with this recipe. All the ingredients, except the walnuts, were locally grown, but I hope soon to gather some local black walnuts which will make this a truly Ontario, albeit Persian-inspired, dish.

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