This is staghorn sumac (rhus thphina), whose gorgeous red fruit berries I first encountered last summer atop High Knob in the Loyalsock. Isn’t it gorgeous?
The branches and berries of the staghorn sumac have a fuzzy feeling like the antlers of a deer (hence the name) and will NOT give you a rash. The stuff that gives you a rash is poison sumac.
Poison sumac has a red trunk. It grows in swamps and standing water, it’s berries are white and hang down, and the leaves look like this.
Got it? Good. Now stop being afraid and go get yourself some staghorn sumac.
What to do with Staghorn Sumac Berries
The sumac fruit is best harvested in late summer after a few days of dry weather. (Rain washes away the oils and lessens their already light flavor) If you’re lucky and have found it at just the right time, it will feel slightly sticky, and when you lick your fingers after touching it, you’ll taste its slightly acidic, lemony flavor.
Bring along a paid of kitchen shears, and cut the fruits off at the base of their stems. Handle them gently, and pack lightly into a paper bag for transport. (Or like me, tear them off and lay them across the hatchback floor for the ride home.)
Sumac fruit is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. The berries can be used to make tea, or dried to make a fabulous spice.
Sumac iced tea is a refreshing, light summer tea. It’s easy to make. Simply rinse the berries in cold water, then pull them off the cluster and into a french press.
Add cold water, 1-2 cup per tbsp of berries, stir and let steep until the flavor is to your liking. (If you go too long and too strong, and it may be bitter.)
Press. Pour the tea into your cup or pitcher, add a little sugar or honey and enjoy. Better yet, add some Campari, Pimms, simple syrup and a lemon twist for a refreshing cocktail.
You can dry the sumac and use it to make hot tea during the cooler months.
The sumac berry, dried (and if you want, ground) makes a wonderful spice.
Sumac is primarily used as part of a spice mixture call za’atar.
There are as many recipes for zaatar as there are tribes in the Middle East, but most contain thyme, salt and sesame seeds. It’s commonly sprinkled atop pita bread brushed with olive oil, or used as a rub for meats.
MAKING SUMAC SPICE
Clip the sumac fruits off the stem and lay out to dry for a few days.
Pull the berries off the stems in clumps and place into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse for a few seconds to separate the seeds and stems from the fruit.
Transfer to a fine sieve, and using a pestle, strain the fruit from the stones and twigs.
The sumac spice is fine threads, with a consistency almost like pencil shavings.
This is what’s left behind. Toss it out.
This is the gold.
Store it in a jar in a cool place out of direct light. It should keep for a year.
Where to buy sumac
If you’re ready to try sumac, here’s a recipe for you.
CHICKEN WITH SUMAC AND PLUMS
Melissa Clarks original recipe uses two whole chickens and is meant for a holiday dinner crowd. I cut it back and modified it to serve 4 using chicken thighs. You can use breasts or a small chicken instead of the parts if you prefer. If you use a whole chicken, omit the thyme from the rub and instead stuff a sprig or two into the chicken cavity, and place the chicken on a small roasting rack atop the plums. (Melissa has a wonderful video showing how she makes the dish using two whole chickens.)
For the chicken
- 1 large lemon
- 1 tablespoon ground sumac
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 tablespoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, grated or minced
- Enough chicken thighs and breasts to serve 4
- Fresh Thyme
For the plums
- 1 pounds plums, halved or quartered if large
- 2 shallots, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
- 1 tablespoons honey
- 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 bay leaf
- Grate lemon zest and place in a small bowl. Set aside the zested lemon.
- Stir sumac, salt, pepper, cinnamon, thyme and allspice into the lemon zest. Stir in 1 1/2 tbsp of the olive oil and the garlic. The mixture should feel like wet sand. Rub it all over the chicken parts and place the chicken on a plate. Let marinate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
- When ready to roast, let chickens come to room temperature for 30 minutes. Heat oven to 450 degrees.
- Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large saute pan that can go into the oven (We used a cast iron pan). Quickly sear and brown chicken thighs over high heat in a pan, then remove to a plate. Turn down heat and in the pan, toss together plums, shallots, honey, oil, salt, Place chickens over the plums in the pan. Roast for 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, squeeze 1 tablespoon juice from the reserved lemon and mix it with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Drizzle this over the chicken, then continue to roast until skin is golden and chicken is cooked through. (another 15-20 mins)
- Let chicken rest, covered lightly with foil, for 10 minutes. Serve with the plums and sprigs of thyme for garnish.
More about Sumac
- Spirit of Wild Wings give a nice video tutorial on identifying and harvesting smooth sumac (rhus glabra)in the wild
- Edible East End has a beautiful video and harvests some incredibly gorgeous local sumac. He dunks the entire fruit into a pitcher of water to make his tea!
- Miss Wong’s Kitchen has a video showing sumac harvest as well as tea and spice making.
- Creative Sustenance has gorgeous pics, and a recipe for Za’atar
- Philadelphia chefs are rediscovering sumac and using it in some very interesting ways (including in a spice mix on french fries)
- Tama Matsuoko Wong makes tea and spice on Serious Eats
- Countryside Daily sums up sumac nicely
- Ottolenghi’s Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za’atar and Lemon