Tasting regional cuisines while traveling across the country is often one of the highlights of a vacation.
Some culinary vacations and side trips are carefully planned, like being in Oregon when the berries are in season or in Vermont when maple syrup is fresh from the sugar house. But sometimes a city’s food signature just comes out of left field.
On a trip to Philadelphia this spring, restaurants of all descriptions were offering dishes accented with sumac.
It turned up throughout the city, from the hipster hole-in-the-wall Federal Donuts to an elegant dinner at Zahav, the city’s only inclusion in the Zagat Top 100 Restaurants.
Not only was it the first time I’d seen sumac on menus, it was probably the first time I’d seen “sumac” written anywhere without it being preceded by “poison.”
Nevertheless, it was everywhere — sprinkled on hummus, spicing baby carrots, coating cuts of beef and serving as one of the dominant spices in the aromatic, addictive fried chicken at Federal Donuts.
As it turns out, sumac is very different from poison sumac, which is the scourge of many gardeners.
The reddish powder, almost identical to paprika, is made from the berries of a bush that grows throughout the Mediterranean, especially in Sicily and southern Italy.
Used in cooking, sumac adds a tart, citrusy tang much like a squeeze of lemon, but without the acid.
Before lemons arrived in Europe, the ancient Romans used it liberally in cooking. Today, cooks find that the bright flavor makes it possible to cut back on salt in many recipes.
Given sumac’s roots in the Mediterranean, it’s no surprise that it accents many Greek, Turkish and Lebanese dishes.
Greek stuffed grape leaves often contain sumac, and hummus is traditionally topped with a generous dusting of sumac powder.
Even the packaged hummus found in the refrigerator section at the grocery store is often garnished with it.
Suzanne Husseini, a Canadian of Arabic ancestry, features sumac in many of the recipes in her cookbook, “Modern Flavors of Arabia: Recipes and Memories from My Middle Eastern Kitchen.”
Husseini, the host of a popular cooking show, uses sumac to bring color and flavor to simple foods such as fried eggs as well as in more elaborate recipes.
Like its evil cousin, poison sumac, the more benign, but spicy, sumac is on the verge of spreading.
Federal Donuts, where lines form early for their artisan doughnuts and then later for the sumac-dusted fried chicken, has already announced plans to expand beyond Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and New York City.
The growing interest in the Mediterranean diet also is likely to lead to more encounters with sumac.
Fortunately, the only itch that this kind of sumac is going to cause is the itch for another helping of good food.
MAKES: 11⁄2 cups
1 15-16 ounce can chickpeas
1⁄4 cup tahini OR mild creamy peanut butter
2 cloves garlic
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
salt, to taste
1 teaspoon sumac powder
Drain and rinse the chickpeas, reserving 1⁄2 cup chickpea liquid. Set aside 1⁄4 cup of the chickpeas for garnishing, if you like.
Place the tahini in a food processor or blender and pulse with the garlic and lemon juice until smooth.
With the machine running, add the 1⁄2 cup reserved chickpea liquid and 13⁄4 cup chickpeas. Process until well blended and smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning with lemon juice and salt. Cover and set hummus aside, at room temperature, to let the flavors meld.
To serve, spread the hummus on a shallow platter and make a small well in the center, with a spoon. Drizzle the olive oil into the well and add the sumac on top. Sprinkle the cumin over the entire plate.
Serve with toasted pita triangles.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy The Spice House)
Sumac-Dusted Oven Fries with Garlic Spread
4 medium-sized russet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head garlic
2 tablespoons sumac
Preheat the oven to 350.
Peel the potatoes. Cut one potato in half and set aside one of the halves. Slice the remaining potatoes into 1⁄2-inch strips. Toss the potatoes with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Bake 30-35 minutes, giving them a stir every 10 minutes or so.
Roughly chop the reserved potato half. Bring to a boil in salted water and cook until soft. Drain and roughly mash with a fork.
Make a paste with the head of garlic by placing peeled garlic cloves into a food processor or blender with a teaspoon of coarse salt. Purée, then add 2 tablespoons of mashed potatoes and 2 tablespoons of water. Add a little more potato or water as necessary. You want the spread to come together, but it won’t be super creamy.
When the fries are done, remove them from the oven and toss with the sumac. Serve with spread on the side.
(SOURCE: Recipe from “Keys to the Kitchen,” by Aida Mollencamp)
Roasted Sumac Chicken
2 tablespoons ground sumac
1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks, trimmed of excess fat
1 small white onion, quartered and separated
11⁄2 pounds fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
1⁄3 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed
11⁄2 tablespoon ground sumac
1⁄2 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon honey
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1⁄4 cup loosely packed fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
In a small bowl, mix the sumac, paprika, salt and pepper with the olive oil into a paste. Rub the paste all over the chicken and mix in the onion slices.
Cover and marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.
Prepare the sauce a few hours before roasting the chicken. In a small saucepan, combine the oil and the garlic. Heat for 5 to 6 minutes over medium-low heat until the garlic blooms with fragrance and browns, but watch that it doesn’t burn.
Let the oil mixture cool slightly and pour into a heatproof container. Remove the garlic. Whisk in the sumac, paprika, lemon juice and honey. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the parsley. Cover and set aside at room temperature to allow the flavors to meld.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Lay the potatoes out in a roasting pan and arrange the chicken, skin side up, and the onions on top. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into a thigh reaches 165 degrees.
Serve the chicken and potatoes immediately with the sauce on the side.
Stir the sauce before drizzling it on the chicken or using it as a dipping sauce.
(SOURCE: Recipe from “The Pat Tanumihardja Collection,” by Pat Tanumihardja)