It's that time of year, when the ravines and hillsides are spotted with the brilliant red fruit of the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Also known as the “lemonade tree,” many people avoid this shrub because they think it is poisonous, but it is actually a delicious sour treat and a great local alternative to lemons. Staghorn sumac are most easily identified by their fuzzy red cones or “drupes.” Their common name comes from the fact that the branches resemble the velvety antlers of a young stag. While there is a type of sumac that is poisonous (Toxicodendron vernix), it is easy to distinguish from staghorn sumac because the poisonous berries are smooth and white, and despite sharing a name, they are not closely related.
The fruit of the staghorn sumac generally begins to ripen in August, turning a rich crimson colour. The best time to harvest is on a dry, sunny day. If harvested after a heavy rainfall, the fruit will not be as flavourful, as much of the malic acid will have washed away. You can test the sumac before harvesting by rubbing your fingers along the furry fruit and licking them - if they taste tart and lemony, then it is a good time to harvest.
It takes a little bit of work to extract the spice from the plant. Although you could pop the seeds directly in your mouth and savour the lemon flavour, they do not have succulent flesh like typical berries, and most people don’t particularly enjoy snacking on the fuzzy seeds. A very simple way to consume sumac is to make a lemonade by steeping the drupes in cool or room-temperature water (hot water will release the bitter tannins) and then straining out the berries and lightly sweetening the flavoured water.
One of our favourite things to make with sumac is za'atar - a traditional Middle Eastern spice mix which often contains thyme, oregano and/or marjoram and toasted sesame seeds. It is commonly eaten with pita that has been dipped in olive oil, or combined with hummus or labneh. We enjoy sprinkling it on roasted vegetables, sliced avocados or fried eggs. Although traditional za’atar is made with Sicilian sumac (Rhus coriaria) which is native to southern Europe, staghorn sumac works too.
We harvested a large batch of sumac, separated them, cleaned them, removed any bugs and brown bits and let them air dry until they were no longer sticky. You could also speed up the process by putting them in a dehydrator (Courtney puts them on a tray and lets them sit in the sun on the rear dash of her car, which acts as an effective dehydrator in a pinch).
These are the whole sumac berries after being sorted, dried and separated from the stems. The next step is to remove the furry red fruit from the seeds.
We put the sumac in a food processor and whipped it up until the spice had separated from the seeds. Then we passed everything through a mesh strainer. This can be a quite time-consuming process.
These are the seeds and sticks that were left behind. I am told there are other uses for these, but we ended up discarding them.
The beautiful, fine, powdery sumac spice. It is bright and lemony - this is what all the hard work was for!
Now, to make the za'atar. There is no single official recipe and no standard ratios. We make ours with thyme and sesame seeds, some like to use more thyme, while others like the sumac to be the more dominant flavour. Through trial and error, the ratio we have come to use is two parts sumac, two parts toasted sesame seeds, one part thyme and salt to taste.
Za'atar can be used on any number of dishes, however we prefer not to cook with it, as heat changes the flavour and destroys the delicious tartness, so we use it as a condiment and sprinkle it on meals after they have been served.
- 2 parts sumac spice
- 2 parts sesame seeds
- 1 part dried thyme
- sea salt
- toast the sesame seeds over medium heat in a dry skillet just until they begin to turn brown
- grind up the thyme in a mortar and pestle until it begins to break down (but before it becomes a fine powder)
- wait until the sesame seeds have cooled, and then mix all the ingredients together
- salt to taste
NOTE: In rare cases, while staghorn sumac is not poisonous, some people may have an allergic reaction to the plant. Those who are allergic to cashews or pistachios are most likely to react, as they are part of the same family. If you think you might be allergic, you can rub some of the plant on a small patch of skin and wait for about an hour. If a rash appears, then it is best to stay away from this plant. Regardless, it is always a good practice to consume only a small amount when trying a new food for the first time.