Editor’s Note: Green Plate Special columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige will return next week. Press Herald food editor Peggy Grodinsky is making a guest appearance.

Count the steadily growing popularity of sumac in the United States among the so-called Ottolenghi Effects of Israeli-British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi. His cookbooks, “Plenty” and “Jerusalem” (the latter written with Sami Tamimi) among them, sell like whatever the Middle Eastern equivalent of hotcakes is, and they have been in no small part responsible for the craze here dating back several years of all things hummus, tahini and shakshuka.

Vibrantly colored and lemony, sumac is used in much Middle Eastern cooking, often as a finishing spice – sprinkled liberally on fish, kebabs and salads just before they are served to add color and pucker. The herb comes from ground-up and dried sumac berries, which grow on sumac shrubs and trees, including Maine native staghorn sumac. Only the females carry the “showy, pyramidal spikes of deep red fruits,” according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which adds that the tree/shrub likes sunny forest edges and open fields; it suggests staghorn sumac as a good native landscape choice. (There is also poison sumac, which you most definitely do NOT want to eat.)

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard that Two Fat Cats Bakery, in Portland and South Portland, has begun to sell local ground sumac for cooking, as part of its new partnership with Goronson Farm in Scarborough. Maureen Goronson, who owns the 6-acre farm of mostly heirloom fruit varieties (no relation to Goranson Farm in Dresden), had never before cooked with sumac, and had barely even heard of it. She inherited the trees from a previous owner. But one of the workers on her farm this summer is cook Alexander Trainor; he’s also chef de partie at Evo Kitchen + Bar, an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant in Portland, where they put sumac on “basically everything,” he said.

He noticed the trees, which ring the farm, and thought they looked like sumac. “It was a surprise to me. I didn’t think that it just grew naturally in Maine,” he said; Trainor grew up in Florida and moved to Maine last year. When Trainor suggested they make and sell the spice, Goronson looked up instructions on homesteading blogs. Trainor went with his training: “I had a general idea of how to do it. We do a lot of dehydration at Evo, so I took that mentality, ‘OK, this is how I make quinoa crackers at work, so that should translate.’ Then we actually looked up a recipe just to make sure.”

The fruit spikes are sliced in half and baked in a very low oven for 10 hours. “It does take a while,” Goronson said. The berries are then stripped from the stalks and ground in a clean coffee grinder. The smell is “wonderful,” she said.

The farm sold its first batch earlier this month. “This is brand new,” Goronson said. But she’s spoken to a few chefs and local markets and thinks there may be a restaurant market for the product. “We have plenty for right now,” she said, “but if every restaurant in Portland and all the markets were to suddenly want to buy tons and tons of it, it would be a supply and demand problem.”

The sumac on the upper left is made at Goronson Farm in Scarborough from Maine Staghorn sumac. The sample on the lower right is commercial sumac.

Meanwhile, you can buy 4 ounces of MOFGA-certified, locally grown organic sumac in a plastic condiment container at Two Fat Cats Bakery – the only place you can find it – for $9.95. The color is closer to rust than the usual red-burgundy of commercial sumac. Goronson said she has learned that commercial sumac is often dyed, irradiated and mixed with salt. Her sumac is unadulterated and, she said, “wild-crafted,” meaning it’s harvested from its natural habitat.

Trainor suggests using the sumac on poultry, meats, potatoes, salads and in marinades. To recreate a salad dressing at Evo, combine lemon juice, olive oil, salt, za’atar and sumac, he said. Goronson plans to experiment with adding the spice to the peach and pear ice creams that the farm makes with its rare fruits. Meanwhile, try fattoush, a classic Middle Eastern salad, an excellent use for sumac (and stale pita) and at its very best in August.

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Fattoush ingredients are ready for tossing. The olives don’t go in the salad, although they’d make a tasty addition. At right is a bowl filled with chopped purslane, a weed that happens to be delicious. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

FATTOUSH

From Joanna Weir’s “More Cooking in the Wine Country.” I am pretty casual about this salad, and have been known to throw in sliced radishes, diced avocado and other vegetables I have on hand that seem suitable, in addition to the listed ingredients. Purslane is a juicy, succulent weed that you can find at this time of year at some farmers markets. Know that fattoush is only as good as its components – perfect summer cucumbers and tomatoes are imperative. — PEGGY GRODINSKY

Serves 6 (or 3-4 as a main course)

2 pita breads (3 to 4 days old)

1 cucumber, cut into 1/2-inch dice

Salt

3 ripe tomatoes (about 1 1/4 lbs.), cut into 1/2-inch dice

6 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

1 green pepper, cut into half-inch dice

1 cup fresh purslane leaves (optional)

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/3 cup chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons crushed dried sumac

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Split each pita bread into 2 rounds, and tear them into 1-inch pieces. Spread them out on a baking sheet, and bake until light golden and dry, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside.

Place the cucumbers in a single layer on several layers of paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and let rest for 20 minutes. Then place the cucumbers in a colander, run cold water over them for a moment, and dry them on clean paper towels.

In a bowl, combine the cucumbers with the tomatoes, scallions, bell peppers, purslane, parsley, mint and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper, and toss carefully.

In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the salad, pita crisps and dressing together. Place on a platter or in a bowl, sprinkle with the sumac, and serve immediately (or the pita will get soggy and the salad watery).


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