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The Funky Fresh Kitchen: Talkin’ Sumac

Let me just put it out there – I love fat, in foods, and a little on my women too. Consider this: I remember a Simpsons bit where Homer wraps a waffle around a stick of butter, and I gave him a standing ovation. But enough about factors that would later contribute to my low teen self-esteem.

I’m here to talk about big flavors, tastes that spark & satisfy your cravings, without making you feel after wards like you’ve joined the VIP club at Old Country Buffet. It’s true, fat does carry flavor – sinful, artery-binding, smooth rich flavor. By now, though, we all know better: you don’t need fat to make something taste delicious.

Using fresh ingredients & a hopefully new understanding of creating flavor, you’ll be able to nourish & satisfy your body, all while feeling better about what’s going into it. I’m not saying these recipes will perform the Hollywood Miracle diet, but they’ll make you feel full & energetic, without using too much fat & just as important, processed ingredients. Instead, take advantage of herbs & spices & flavored oils & marmalades or what have you – anything that can pack a potent punch of flavor. Balance sensations – sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Have fun with food.

Instead of waxing culinary on several different recipes, I’m giving you one. I’m going to probably annoy you talking about one dish in a way that would reveal how active my sex life is. But in doing so, I’ll go through basic techniques & hopefully explain how to make countless variations on a given dish.

Today’s dish is a salad, of sorts. Here’s “my” idea (i.e. as dictated by this magazine’s wonderful editor-in-chief): something fresh, something really tasty, something different – but not too heavy so you can go out afterwards. I can’t say if the recipe really has a title; I’ve never known how to answer the question “what do you call this?” Let’s try: shrimp with summer salad in a lemon-sumac-fennel vinaigrette. Imagine hot, pan-seared shrimp, served a top a salad of arugula, grape tomatoes & roasted corn kernels, tossed in a vinaigrette.

How the dish works…

First, the vinaigrette. Here’s a quick breakdown of what a vinaigrette essentially is – an emulsion of oil & acid. Add a little salt, pepper, and whatever additional flavors you want. The acid is usually vinegar, but other acids such as fresh citrus juice will also work. I like to use olive oil because of its relative lightness to other oils, it’s taste & it’s health benefits. Another oil, more neutral in flavor, but very clean tasting, is grapeseed oil. Fresh spices & herbs also add a great bite to any vinaigrette, just add it in at the very last second to keep the flavor fresh & distinct. In addition to lemon juice, you can also use white or red wine vinegar, even apple cider vinegar adds a wonderful fruity taste. Even orange juice. As long as it’s an acid. An edible acid. For this dish, we’re going to add ground sumac & ground fennel seeds to the vinaigrette.

Let’s talk sumac. If you’ve been to a Persian kabob house, chances are you’ve sprinkled this deep reddish-brownish herb like a madman over your kubideh kabob & your charred tomatoes. There’s something about that tart herb playing off the smokiness of the meat & tomatoes that just sings to your stomach. Sumac has this delicious fruity, tart flavor, just enough to add a fantastic zing to your food. It’s commonly used in the Middle East in the same way we use lemon, vinegar and turmeric to add that slight sour note to dishes.

Fennel seeds meanwhile have many more uses than being randomly candy coated and left to fester in a dirty bowl beside the toothpicks in a desi restaurant. They’re a basic spice in most Indian spice mixes. It adds a slightly spicy anise-like (think licorice) quality to the mix. The fennel should enhance the sumac, so we’ll use a ratio of 2 parts ground sumac to 1 part to ground fennel.

Seafood is light but filling. It’s easily manipulated, and cooks a lot quicker than you think. Plus it’s low-fat, high-protein, and has that natural sweetness that really blends in well with the other ingredients. I picked shrimp because it’s easier to handle, and can be easily portioned. Try to use fresh seafood – both fresh scallops & shrimp are easy to pick up from any grocery store. If not, frozen will work absolutely fine. (Try & stray from using those pre-cooked frozen shrimp if you can.)You can easily use chicken here as well, it’ll definitely make the dish more substantial. Chicken breast works easily here – it’s very lean, very healthy, easy to cook.

Arugula (also called rocket to us Brits) is a delicious, peppery, slightly bitter green that’s easily found in grocery stores everywhere. Arugula & tomatoes are a match made in heaven. Try to find young, smaller leaves of arugula if possible, they pack a fresh punch pepper punch; older, broader leaves will still work fine, but taste a little, well, tired. Using cherry or grape tomatoes accomplishes a few things. Their sweetness is a perfect foil for the assertive arugula, and it’s a pairing that just break-dances in your mouth. That sweetness in turn brings out the sumac flavor, and really complements seafood. The only reason I didn’t use normal sliced tomatoes, like roma tomatoes, is because their water content tends to make the rest of the salad soggy, especially since the good tomatoes are still a few months away from being picked. Again, no worries though, it’s a matter of preference and convenience. Don’t like arugula? Use any combination of fresh mesclun greens, watercress or fresh romaine lettuce hearts.

The key in this salad is the roasted corn kernels. I’m sure many people who’ve spent time in India or Pakistan are familiar with bhutta, fresh corn cobs roasted over a roadside flame. Once the kernels are charred on the outside, just sprinkle with salt & pepper, maybe a little garam or chaat masala, squeeze some lime juice, and tear in with reckless abandon. The idea here is to impart that smoky, tangy pop of those kernels into this salad. You can broil the corn in an oven, or preferably over a gas flame on your stove, just be careful not to burn yourself. Once it’s nice & charred to your liking, shave the kernels off the cob, sprinkle it with love & toss into the salad bowl. In one salad, you have something bitter, something sweet, something sour & tangy, something salty.

My favorite variation is to add raw, sliced fennel. Fennel, the vegetable, has a white root, a bulb rather, layered not unlike an onion, the shape a gnarly knob, with long tubular green sprouts sticking out of it, topped off by a nice tuft of fennel fronds. (see picture in the recipe section below…and isn’t “frond” a goofy word?). To prepare it, first wash the fennel thoroughly. Using just the white bulb, peel away the outer layer, and slice the root thinly. You can also slice the long green tubes (like celery). Toss the fennel with the arugula. Not only will this add a nice crunch to the recipe, but it will build another outstanding layer of flavor. Depending on your personal taste, that may or may not be a good thing. Remember – we’re using fennel seeds in the spice mix. Adding the raw vegetable will only enhance that fennel-ly sensation.

Make your vinaigrette, cook the seafood, toss the salad together, drizzle the vinaigrette – and voila – or should I say wah, bhai, wah!! – you’re ready to eat.

The following recipe will come as no surprise, but remember, it’s at best an outline for your dish. Tailor it to your own taste buds. The only step left now is the one into the kitchen.

The Recipe…

Shrimp Salad with Sumac Vinaigrette
(an homage to chef Thomas John)
Serves 2-3

½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon ground sumac
4 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled & de-veined
4-6 cups packed arugula leaves
½ pint grape tomatoes
1 recipe roasted corn kernels (recipe follows)

  1. In a small skillet, toast the fennel seeds over low heat until fragrant, ~1 minute. Take seeds off the heat, cool, transfer seeds to spice grinder & grind to a powder.
  2. Add the juice of 1 lemon to a small bowl. While whisking, slowly pour in 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir in ground fennel, sumac & minced garlic. Add salt & pepper to taste & set aside.
  3. In a medium/large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering (but not smoking). Season the shrimp with salt & pepper and add to the skillet. Cook shrimp over medium/high heat until pink & firm, ~2-3 minutes.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, combine the arugula, tomatoes & roasted corn kernels. Add half the vinaigrette to bowl & toss salad ingredients together. Arrange portions of the salad on plates and top with the sautéed shrimp. Drizzle vinaigrette over the shrimp and serve immediately.

Roasted Corn Kernels (makes ~1 ½ cups)
1 ear fresh corn, cleaned
¼ teaspoon ground sumac
Salt & pepper to taste

Gas Stove Instructions:

  1. Turn flame to highest setting. Using tongs, place the corn on the grate/grill above the gas burner. Turn & rotate position periodically for even cooking. The kernels will start to turn char almost immediately. Once all sides are charred, turn heat to medium/low and let corn cook for additional 5-10 minutes. (this will depend on both the type of corn as well as the power of your gas flame). Taste a kernel. If it seems a bit raw & chalky, cook a little longer.
  2. Once the corn is charred & cooked to your liking, let the ear rest for a few minutes before cutting. To cut, simply hold the ear of corn at an angle against the plate (completely vertical works best) and cut the kernels off the cob. Toss the kernels with salt, pepper & ground sumac.

Oven Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven on the highest setting (“broil”). Place corn on rack underneath broiler and let corn cook for ~5-10 minutes, rotating frequently for even cooking. Once the corn is cooked to your liking, follow the rest of the instructions above.

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