Welcome back to our new column, Dealers Choice, where food expert Ian Purkayastha clues us in on what top chefs across America are serving on freshly ironed white linen tablecloths at upscale restaurants. Food dealer to over 300 restaurants nationwide, including a clientele of chefs like Sean Brock and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Ian’s smooth talking sales pitch and top shelf product list has everybody hooked on the goods he’s slinging.
Lemons are so overrated. This is staghorn sumac, a wild shrub that grows torpedo-shaped cones and tastes almost identical to their citrus rival.The cones can be dried, ground up as a spice, added to water as a flavoring substitute for lemonade, or used as a natural tie-dye on the hideous clothing your roommate threw up all over.
Its sister plant, poison sumac, is the jerk that many American botanists consider to be the most toxic plant in the US. It will wreak havoc on your skin if you accidentally touch it, resulting in a rash far worse than a gnarly session with poison oak or poison ivy. If that happens, turn on R Kelly and break out the Calamine lotion. Oh and by the way, when poison sumac is burned—say accidentally tossed over a pile of hot embers at a bonfire session—inhaling the smoke can cause potentially fatal respiratory issues. Are you paying attention?
Useless, or Useful Information
It grows in Texas, up through the Dakotas, and can thrive as far as Northern Maine.
Botanists think that the jutting branches of this shrub look like deer horns. I don’t really see it, but let’s just go with it. The fiery, maroon-colored cones can be broken into small pieces like a fresh nug of weed.
Putting the fuzzy bits inside of your mouth sounds as appealing as drinking a bottle of Draino, but the plant has an intensely citrusy flavor. Earlier on in the season—from June to the end of September—the fuzzy parts have a juicy berry. But at the finish line of the growing season in late November, the buds will dry out completely. I like to suck on the fuzz. You heard me.
It doesn’t really smell like much, but if you stuck yourself inside of a dark closet with a fresh cone, you might mistake it for a mothball.
What to Do with a Batch of It
It’s used in Mediterranean dishes as a dried spice that can be sprinkled over meat or seafood for a deep, citrus flavor. You can almost always find it in mainstream grocery stores in the spice section. Fresh wild sumac is very moist, and retains its brilliant red color when it’s freshly ground. I like to make a sumac syrup for cocktails, but some of my chefs like to cook a beurre blanc sauce and throw in a sumac bud at the very end. It will stain anything it touches, so don’t wear white jeans when you’re cooking with it, unless you’re Andrew WK.
I usually find it growing around ugly subdivisions, but I’ve also found it off of the side of the road near the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Deal Breaker
Like I mentioned before, poison sumac is staghorn's sister plant. Here’s how to tell staghorn apart from the awful kind that will give you rashes that will make you look like a total nightmare at the bar: poison sumac is a tree that grows in wet environments such as riverbanks, swamps, and in the middle of streams. So if you're out in the woods and can't quite tell what you're looking at, rub up on one of these to see if you start to break out in an agonizing rash of puss-filled blisters. If nothing happens, you’re probably good to go. But whenever you’re foraging, you should always run your wild edibles by a professional botanist to make sure you’re not killing yourself, or someone else. No one likes a lawsuit.