Have you heard of this incredibly useful, tasty berry? Chances are you've heard of poison sumac. Here is a photo of Poison Sumac:
Note the white berries. There are many types of Sumac, and this is the only toxic one. All the other Sumac specimens have clusters of red, fuzzy berries.
Any Sumac with red fruit is safe, edible, and if gathered at peak, delicious!
The berries are most often dried and used as a tart spice in many Indian and Mediterranean dishes, but what I will be sharing today is a recipe for a sort of home-made wild lemonade called sumac-ade! This drink is delicious, easy to prepare, fun to gather, and loaded with Vitamin C.
Preparation of the beverage is simple. The first step is to harvest the berries. The large clusters easy to collect. I usually just snap off the twig that bears the cluster by bending it quickly, although some people might feel more comfortable use pruning shears or a knife. You want to get the berries when they are dark red and fully mature, so that they have fully developed their tart flavor, but before the rain has had the opportunity to wash the flavor out. A dark red/purple coloration usually indicates that the flavor of the fruit has developed fully; yet some of the best clusters I've tasted were light pink. As with any wild fruit, taste will vary from location to location, and even within the same plant.
A potential mistake is to harvest the berry heads before they are ripe, in which case they will produce an unpleasantly bitter brew. More commonly, the problem is that the berries are collected long after their flavor has been washed out by rain.
Take your Sumac clusters, place them in a pot, pour cold water over them, then crush them up a little with a spoon or potato masher and then let the pitcher sit in a cool place for a while. Pouring boiling or hot water over the berries will cause the drink to become bitter. Always use cool water. The longer the berries infuse, the stronger the drink will be. When the flavor is to your liking, just strain the drink through a cheesecloth to remove seeds and hairs. Sumac-ade is pleasantly tart with a light pink color. Add sugar or honey to taste. I use Agave.
All in all, however, the sumac is a wonderful tree, deserving of much more attention for culinary use. Unfortunately, the fact that most people associate sumac as being poisonous doesn't help it's reputation. That does leave more for me, but either way there's plenty of sumac to go around. Why not try some this summer? :)