Monday, September 26, 2016

Foraging for Sumac

It’s dusk. Ed and I are breezing down the narrow lane that connects our road to Highway 53 in our pickup, windows rolled down. Feels like summertime, but I can tell fall is just round the next bend.

“Slow down just past this fence post,” I say to Ed. “No, no, not that one; maybe the next one.” “Yes, that’s it. Pull over just a bit.” He glances in the rear view mirror to make sure no other cars are behind us. None coming – no surprise on this rarely travelled road. 

I reach out the window and snap off a few red tops of the wild sumac growing along the roadside. I’d been scouting sumac all summer and had spotted these earlier in the evening as we were on our way to wildlife identification class put on by the county’s extension service. I’d been thinking about them ever since, when I should have been paying closer attention to the discussion of how to tell a coyote’s pawprint from a bobcat’s.

Anyway, I was delighted with my long-sought bounty. I've had in my mind that I want to make some sumac spice, ground from the berries. In fact, my desire to forage for this spice ingredient led us to plant 40 sumac seedlings last January. Whenever I spot one in our woods or along our paths, they seem to be flourishing – but I think it will be a few years before they are mature enough to sprout the needed red tops.

Back home, I set the crimson drupes (called sumac bobs) out on the porch to dry in the sun. Two days later, I work the red fuzzy seeds off the bobs' stems and throw them into the blender. My fingers are coated with a red dust that tastes remarkably like lemon. After a bit of a whirl, I dump the blender’s contents into a clean flour sifter and then sift the red powder from the yellow seeds. Voila! I’ve successfully made sumac spice.

But no. I am not content with this new culinary spice that I can put on just about anything – from yogurt to fish to roasted vegetables. No, I demand more. I demand za’artar, a spice blend used throughout the Middle East. A quick search of 101 cookbooks – one of my favorite blogs – leads me to the recipe.

I dry some fresh thyme in a low oven, mix it with some toasted sesame seeds, a bit of salt and a teaspoon or two of my freshly made sumac. Not only was the finished product beautiful, but my whole house smells of thyme.

Now that I've got my own stash of homemade za'atar, I see all kinds of new creations coming out of my kitchen: flatbreads, roasted chicken, chickpea salad, eggplant fries, popcorn, sweet potato soup, roasted butternut squash, and pita chips. I'm on a roll. 

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