The Summer of Sumac

In July of 1996, we were fortunate to celebrate a family anniversary in Aspen, Colorado. We had previously been to Aspen many times to ski, but never in summer. The locals were right. It is glorious that time of year. Aspen is known for great skiing, but it is almost as well known for its huge number of excellent restaurants. Many of these are very interesting, even delicious, but some are a bit too precious for my taste. Personally, after a long day in the mountains of hiking or skiing, I’m more in the mood for a perfect piece of roast chicken and pommes frites rather than a complicated dish with a long list of ingredients.

One evening during that magical week in July, we scored a local teacher to baby sit our young kids and took the opportunity to try one of Aspen’s wonderful restaurants. We selected one with a Mediterranean menu. I don’t recall the name, but that doesn’t matter. We sat down and a charming accented waiter came by to take our order. I was intrigued, where was he from? “Yugoslavia,” he replied. How does someone from Yugoslavia find their way to one of the most beautiful, remote locations in the U.S to be a waiter in a Mediterranean restaurant? I’m sure there was a good story there, but I thought it would be rude to grill him.

We ordered salads and our main course. I don’t remember much about the latter, except that it was probably fish (which I order often when I am out) and it was delicious. But the simple salad was a revelation. Greens, tomatoes, maybe some sweet onions dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and sprinkled with a spice I could not identify. What was that flavor? A little bit astringent, a little bit fruity, a little earthy, but clean. I finally asked our Yugoslav server. “Sumac,” he replied.

I had heard of sumac—usually associated with “poison.” Poison sumac, like poison oak has a resin in it that it an irritant to human skin. Obviously, this wasn’t the same thing. The sumac I was enjoying is a decorative shrub found wild in the Middle East and parts of Italy. The berries are dark red or purple and are ground up to add to all sorts of dishes—chicken, fish, salads, meats, rice, on top of hummus to add a bit of color and flavor. Sumac adds a pleasant tartness to foods, almost like lemons, but less acidic.

Greek salad with sumac

Greek salad with sumac

At home, my favorite way to use sumac is on my “everything-in-my-fridge” Greek salad. This is a very satisfying meal of fresh spinach leaves, Persian cucumbers (smaller and sweeter than the regular or English varieties), sweet onion, bell pepper, avocado, feta cheese and diced chicken. For the dressing I squeeze fresh lemon, a little extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with the sumac.

Tuna or chicken salad also get an unusual new flavor profile when you add sumac as do egg dishes or anything you’d barbeque. Something about sumac gives me a feeling of well-being. It’s just a little exotic and it really adds to the flavor of fresh, healthy Mediterranean dishes I love. Or maybe it’s that whenever I sprinkle sumac on food, I’m reminded of that simple, perfect salad during that perfect evening in Aspen all those years ago. And I still wonder about the young waiter who found his way from war-torn Yugoslavia to a posh ski town in the Rockies.

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