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I Spice: Sumac

Find rich, red ground sumac or sumac berries at Middle Eastern markets. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

I grew up in the Middle East and have always been enamored by the region's food. Of course, topping my list of spices that I grew up enjoying are zaatar and sumac. In our house, we used zaatar more. It is basically a concoction of oregano, sesame seeds, sumac and thyme. I have always wanted to learn more about sumac, which provides the characteristic tangy taste to the zaatar that I love so much, and incorporate it better into my cooking. I turned to the one and only person I know who could write an encyclopedia entry on sumac and still have something more to share: Paula Wolfert, guru of Mediterranean cooking and author of numerous acclaimed books on the subject.

“I love the taste of sumac," she tells me during our phone interview. "It is bitter, tangy, sweet, salt. In all very intriguing."

Sumac, a berry, has been used in the Middle East as a souring agent for centuries. I asked Paula if lemon juice or vinegar were substitutes, and the answer was an emphatic no. “Sumac adds another dimension that lemon juice does not,” she said. It also adds a lovely red ting to a dish.

Sumac is sold as dried berries and ground. Please be aware that you need to buy this from a store and must not pick the sumac growing on the roadside in places as some of those varieties are poisonous. Paula advises storing the berries in the freezer and the ground sumac in the fridge.

This spice is a fantastic tabletop condiment, to be sprinkled on such dishes as salads, baked chicken, hummus, boiled eggs and more to provide that extra zing. For cooking, Paula suggests adding some water to the berries, allowing the mixture to sit for a bit and then draining the berries. Using the sumac water will allow the spice's taste penetrate the dish (as opposed to just adding powdered sumac or sprinkling the sumac as a garnish). Sumac goes well with chicken and fish. Even though lemon or vinegar can't be substituted for it effectively, the reverse substitution -- sumac instead of lemon or vinegar -- can work wonders in kebabs, broiled chicken, fish, stews, salad dressing and more. Sumac can be used during the cooking process and then also sprinkled on top of the final dish.

In early fall, look for Paula’s new "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share." Her fattoush recipe follows....

-- Monica Bhide

6 to 8 servings

The addition of two special ingredients makes this salad a fattoush rather than merely a Middle Eastern version of Italian panzanella: fleshy, textured purslane and lemony sumac.

Purslane grows wild in almost every cultivated garden in the United States, and shows up at farmers markets during the summer. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, it is incredibly nutritious. If you can't find it, simply leave it out. Red ground sumac, available at Middle Eastern groceries or by mail order, infuses the salad with a delightful, slightly sour pungency and aroma.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad base (minus the tomatoes and pita pieces) needs to be refrigerated for up to 3 hours in advance. Add the crumbled pita and tomatoes just before serving to keep them crisp and fresh.

Adapted from Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean" (William Morrow, 1994).

1 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice (1/2 to 2/3 cup)
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeded and then cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
6 to 8 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped (1 cup)
Leaves from 1/3 bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (3/4 cup)
Leaves from 3 to 5 sprigs of mint (preferably spearmint), finely chopped (1/4 cup)
About 12 arugula leaves, washed, dried and torn into bite-size pieces (about 1 cup)
1 ounce purslane, coarsely chopped (1/4 cup; optional; see headnote)
2 medium cloves garlic, crushed in a mortar with 1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of 1 or 2 lemons (1/4 cup)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons ground sumac (see headnote)
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium or 3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice (at least 2 cups; see NOTE)
Two 6-to-8-inch pitas, toasted in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, then broken into1/2-inch pieces

Combine the green bell pepper, cucumber, scallions, parsley, mint, arugula and purslane, if desired, in a large bowl.

Combine the garlic, lemon juice, oil, sumac and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl; mix well, then add to the large bowl and toss to incorporate. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 hours before serving. Add to the large bowl and mix well, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 hours so the flavors will meld.

Ten minutes before serving, add the tomatoes and pita pieces; toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

NOTE: To peel the tomatoes, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Cut an "X" in the bottom of each tomato and remove the stem. Place in the boiling water for 10 or 15 seconds, then use a slotted spoon to quickly transfer to the ice water. The skin should slip off.

Per serving (based on 8): 140 calories, 2 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 123 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  July 24, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, sumac  
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