Sumac: for seasonings and lemonade
It's the perfect time to harvest the staghorn sumac berries -- here's what to do with them!
In Canada, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is one of the three main accesible and natural sources of vitamin C in the winter. The panicles (clusters of florets) stay on the plant well into the snowy season, sometimes remaining until the next spring. Sumac lemonade (or sun tea) is a delightfully refreshing drink -- pink and slightly tart, great for the late days of summer.
If you are allergic to mangoes, cashews, or have issues with low blood pressure, you may want to avoid sumac.
August is a good time to start harvesting the plant for lemonades or for drying to use as a seasoning. Take a pair of snips with you to make it easier to clip them from the tree, and select nice plump, robust, deep red clusters. The later in the season you go, the drier they will be, and they will require additional soaking and more clusters to derive the full flavour from the plant. Too early, on the other hand, and the berries may be bitter, so feel free to taste the clusters to make sure they are ready.
Shake the panicles to remove any bugs that may be hiding. Avoid putting them in water until you are ready to make the lemonade as it is the powder on the berries that has the flavour.
Soak the panicles in cold water for 20 minutes up to three hours (or even overnight), gently rubbing/crushing them in the beginning stage to liberate the pink powder that coats the individual berries. Hot water draws the tannins from the stems, and becomes more of a tea, with different health benefits.
Make a more concentrated liquid to be frozen in ice cube trays to create "instant" lemonade cubes for later use.
Remove the stems, strain the liquid, and sweeten to taste.
In Asian and North African dishes, dried sumac (a different variety, but with a similar taste) is used as a spice. It adds a lemony taste to meats or salads, and is also used as a garnish (sprinkle a few loose florets on top of hummus or rice for a bit of zing).
Much as you hang other herbs for drying, suspend the panicles upside down to dehydrate (or place into a dehydrator, if you have one). Alternatively, harvest the panicles late in the season -- after the frost to ensure any bugs are dead. Remove the berries and store in an air-tight bottle.
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