Juicy blackberries, tart “sumac-ade”, pungent herbs, and a surprising spicy ingredient combine to make three gorgeous variations on a delicious, refreshing summer drink theme. The simple base ingredients can be foraged and prepared ahead of time, so the drinks are quick and easy to make for everyday use, but also appealing and unusual enough to prepare for a special party or get-together.
Summer Foraging Along Boise’s Greenbelt
I created these cool sumac drink mocktails after a long, hot afternoon spent foraging along the Boise River that runs through my town. July and August temperatures in the upper 90’s for weeks at a time make getting outside in the sunny furnace much past 10 am a chore. And at this time of year, in order to conserve energy, we close our blinds to shade the interior; it’s great for our fuel bill, but makes things a bit dark right when my brain and mood is craving sunlight.
If you ever feel the same and suffer from a bout of summertime cabin fever, then maybe following these instructions and figuring out a new use for all the wonderful wild ingredients we have available here in Idaho and the Mountain West will help you snap out of it. If nothing else, you can use this recipe to make a tart and refreshing post-foraging drink to help pass the time.
How to develop a wild food recipe when there isn’t much growing
Challenge yourself (and get off the couch)
On the day in question, my family’s schedule combined with my current client workload didn’t allow for a trip up to the mountains, which is where much of the edible fungus and the widest variety of plants is at this time of year – at least in Idaho. Still, to get over my summer funk, I knew I needed to get outside and walk around, so I set myself a challenge to find at least one foraged edible in enough quantity to make a treat for my family. Extra FunGal bonus points if I found multiple ingredients (and I did!)
Think in seasons (what was growing this time last year?)
I knew from several years of record-keeping (and keeping my eyes open, lol) that wild blackberries were likely out and ripening, so I had that ingredient idea in my back pocket. Easy win if I couldn’t find much else in the summer heat.
Hey, when I set myself a goal these days I know how to stack the deck in my favor LOL.
Poke around and keep an open mind (don’t just hunt for one ingredient).
As it turned out, I did find blackberries* (Rubus spp.), but also staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), and curly dock (Rumex crispus). So I had a few ingredients…now what to make of them?
Think about the properties of your foraged ingredients (sweet? starchy? pungent?) as well as the time and equipment you have available.
I know curly dock makes a tasty gluten-free flour. (Sampling these curly dock “conversation rolls” made by The Wondersmith turned me on to that.) But processing curly dock flour requires collecting, drying, a brief roasting for best flavor, then grinding and sifting. It was already late afternoon and I didn’t relish heating up the kitchen to roast the seeds AND bake whatever I decided to make, so making something quick and cool was vastly preferable.
Sumac’s bright red velvety “berries” (actually drupes) are quite tart as long as you gather them in summer to early fall, before rains have had a chance to wash off much of the malic acid, tannins, and Vitamin C. The flavor is a natural stand-in for lemon, and the lovely red cones make a refreshing drink that some call “sumac-ade” or sumac tea. I decided to use this as a base for a cool drink, add in the blackberries, then raid my herb garden and spice cabinet for just a few more ingredients.
I also remembered this amazing berry curd recipe from Gather Victoria that used Oregon Grape, but decided to save it for another day. I’ll make a separate post about how I used that ingredient soon.
Use other ingredients you have available (either from your garden, pantry, or maybe a neighbor).
Cheating? Well, my challenge, my rules. I *did* have to forage through the weeds in my back garden to gather the other ingredients. I chose sage and lavender, remembering a delicious pepper-sage lemonade I had at Red Feather Lounge once. Oh yeah, I raided my spice cabinet too. Ingredients are everywhere!
Make sure to think about using ingredients you may already have preserved as well, whether canned, jellied, frozen or dried!
Review cookbooks and online sources for recipe or ingredient ideas.
The next thing I typically do when I’m trying to use a new ingredient or develop a recipe is to pilfer through my collection of cookbooks for the “shell” of a recipe to work from. But there aren’t a ton of thorough cookbooks specifically for wild foods (though I’ll try to list some good ones at the end), so sometimes I end up googling and/or searching the blogs of other wild foodies like The Forager Chef, or The Wondersmith, or Devon at Nitty Gritty Life.
Certain standard cookbooks like those from America’s Test Kitchen are also great because they tell you the how and the why behind the ingredients and methods they use. (And provide instructions if you need help with how to cook in the first place.) So, even if you don’t have the exact same ingredients, as you start to learn the properties of new-to-you wild foods you’ll learn you can substitute something like lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) when a recipe calls for cooked spinach, or even collard greens. You’ll get slightly different flavors and results, but that’s part of the fun of experimenting, I think.
Adjust recipes to your ingredients and needs and make something!
But again, even though cookbooks are ideal for things like portioning, or getting amounts to make the chemistry of baking work out, I was after something cool – not really baked or cooked if I could help it. So, back to the drinks. I reminded myself about proportions of cold water to sumac drupes with a quick Google search, and then poked around for blackberry-sage drink recipes. This one added lavender to a sage lemonade, which I thought was a nice touch, so I wrote that down. None of them were exactly what I wanted though, so I just used them as a jumping-off point and made my own “recipe”.
As it turned out, I did need to use the stove briefly to make a syrup base, but it hardly took any time at all. On to the recipe!
How to make Summer Sumac Drink Mocktails Three Ways
Most of the time involved in this recipe involves foraging or gathering the ingredients and letting the the sumac steep. Those can easily be done ahead of time and the base ingredients frozen, so all you have to do when you’re ready for a treat is mix the drinks, which just takes a minute or two.
Following are just a few extra explanatory notes about the flavors and process. For detailed instructions and a printable copy of the recipe, scroll to the end.
Start with a “simple syrup”:
Assemble and cook your ingredients
Bruise and then tear a few sage leaves to release their aromatic oils and set aside. Coarsely crack peppercorns with a mortar and pestle and do the same.
Next, bring the water, blackberries, sugar, sage, lavender buds, and cracked peppercorns to a boil over medium-high heat. Watch carefully and stir frequently to dissolve the sugar and avoid burning. Mush up the blackberries as they heat. This should only take 5-8 minutes.
Take a chance on a new flavor
You’re going to want to stick your nose in at this point because it looks so tempting, and when you do, you’ll think I’m crazy because you’ll get a whiff of Thanksgiving and want to bag the whole operation. You’ll mutter “I KNEW pepper didn’t belong in a drink!” So if you’re at all timid about trying new things, DON’T do that. Truuuuuust me! 😉 It’s a delicious pick-me-up for your taste buds. (Next time you make it – and there will be a next time – feel free to imbibe and marvel over how something as savory as sage with such strong associations can take on a completely different character in another setting.)
Strain the mixture and chill well
Once the mixture has boiled, remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Strain through a fine sieve and refrigerate for later. That’s it! This will be the base flavoring for all three drinks. It’s also really good over ice cream… (You should end up with about 1 1/4 cups of syrup.)
Make Sumac-ade or Sumac Tea
For the sumac drink base, you’ll need 3-5 fresh or dried sumac cones and cool water. I use roughly a cup of water per hand-sized cone, but you don’t need to get too precise here. You pretty much just need to make sure the drupes are covered.
Prepare the sumac “cones” or berries and discard any that aren’t good
Break up the cones in a pitcher, picking out any obviously bad bits or critters. I tend to leave my cones sitting out in a mesh bag for several hours to several days after harvesting and I’ve never had any issue with ants or worms or anything like that in my sumac cones, but I know some people experience this. I suspect it has to do with the very dry climate here in southern Idaho – if you live in an area with higher humidity, just check the interior of the cones for blackening and don’t use parts that look like they’re mildewing, or are harboring critters.
Steep in cool water
Cover with cool water (hot water will leach tannins into the drink and may make it bitter) and let sit “until ready”. With the fresh super-tart cones I collected in early August it only took 30 minutes to an hour to finish. But if you’re using dry cones, or those with a weaker flavor, then you can let them steep for as long as 12 hours. Trust your taste buds to tell you when it’s nice and lemony and ready to go.
Strain and chill well or enjoy as-is
Strain through a fine mesh sieve or coffee filter and refrigerate until needed. (FYI, at this point you can now drink this as-is, or sweeten to taste as you would lemonade if you don’t want to make the mocktails. Don’t sweeten the base any further though if you’re going to make the rest of the drinks.)
Now you’re ready to assemble your drinks!
Make sure all of your ingredients are well-chilled so you don’t have to use too much ice. You want to be able to enjoy the bright colors and the subtle-to-obvious layering that happens with the different drinks without having it messed up by a glassful of ice.
The Bitter Forager’s Rescue
I call the first one the Bitter Forager’s Rescue. This slightly bittersweet drink is for those days when the foray doesn’t quite go as expected, you don’t find what you’re looking for, or it’s too hot (or cold, or dry, or…) for things to grow. Or maybe you’ve just got too much work to do to escape on a foraging venture and you want to remember sweeter, more bountiful times. A bit of tonic water and a splash of bitters make this a sophisticated dark pink drink. It’s definitely my favorite, and I’m not bitter at all. 😉
The Fizzy Forager
Next up is a variation I call the Fizzy Forager. It’s a fun ruby color that gets a bit of stratification from the club soda and the muddled blackberries (or huckleberries) that float to the top. This one was my kids’ favorite. If you’ve got a plant available, I like to garnish this one with a lavender or sage flower “swizzle stick”.
The Foray Sunrise
Last up is the showy Foray Sunrise. Build it right and it will layer in beautiful colors reminiscent of a misty sunrise on the lake, with all the promise of a bountiful foray. This one was a hit with my husband, and it’s a lot of fun to make and watch the colors spread. Traditional garnish on a sunrise is an orange slice.
Enjoy a Taste of Summer Year-Round
If you freeze the berries and dry some of the other ingredients, you could make these mocktails at any time of year! You can also make and freeze the syrup and sumac-ade for later use so you can enjoy a summer memory year-round.
Let Me Know How it Went/Get Behind-the-scenes Access
I’d love to hear what you think of this recipe! Please comment with your results or any questions you might have; it helps me improve and provide recipes and instructions that you find useful.
I’m generally out foraging at least 1-2 times per week between February and November, so I have A BUNCH of photos and seasonal documentation of which edible and medicinal wild foods are growing in my area (Southern to Central Idaho) at any one time. Over time (and winter) those will get incorporated into blog posts like this one, but it takes a lot of time to photograph, research, outline, write, post, and share these articles. Time I’m not able to be out foraging. 😉
However, I do try to post quick updates on what I’m doing and finding on social media (Facebook and Instagram) when I get back from a trip, so following me on your platform of choice will let you in on that.
(You can find links to my social platforms in the sidebar on the right, or in the footer.)
But, if you really want to be the first to get the inside scoop about what I’m finding, where I’m looking (within a 25-mile radius ha ha ;-), and more importantly, HOW I go about researching and finding wild foods, (so you can do it too) then you’ll want to join my email list. There’s also a sign-up for that in the sidebar to the right.
I use my email posts to share about the current season, teach and learn more about wild foods, and share resources and tools that I’ve found helpful. Some of those might be resources I’ve created for sale, or links to tools sold by others. At the moment I don’t have an affiliate relationship with anyone, so I don’t get any tangible benefit from recommending anyone else’s tools. I just share what I use and love. Someday I may develop some affiliate partnerships, but if I do, rest assured I’ll let you know when that happens, and they will always only be tools I’ve used and found useful.
Happy foraging! ~Krista the FunGal Forager
*Fun Fact: In researching this post I discovered that the study of brambles in general is called “batology”. Ha ha! Why batology? I don’t have any idea! Do you? I’ve always called the plump, wild, rounded variety of blackberry a “Brambleberry” – seems like this study should be called brambology or thornology…;-) File this away for Scrabble night.
Sumac Mocktail Drinks Three Ways
Sumac-ade Drink Base
- 8 c cool water don't use hot or boiling!
- 4 staghorn sumac cones around 4" to 6" long
Blackberry Pepper Sage Simple Syrup Base
- 1 c water
- ½ c blackberries fresh or thawed
- ½ c sugar
- 1-2 T culinary lavender buds 1 T if dried, more like 2T if fresh
- 6 leaves sage bruised, then coarsely torn
- 2 t rainbow peppercorns coarsely cracked
Bitter Forager's Rescue Drink
- 1 oz blackberry syrup base (or slightly more to taste)
- 4 oz sumac-ade base
- 1 splash cocktail bitters Angostura or your own blend
- 4 oz tonic water
Fizzy Forager Drink
- ¼ c wild blackberries
- 4 oz sumac-ade base
- 1 oz blackberry syrup base (or slightly more to taste)
- 4 oz club soda
Foray Sunrise Drink
- 4 oz sumac-ade
- 4 oz orange juice
- 1 oz blackberry syrup base (or slightly more to taste)
- 1 slice orange
For the Sumac-ade Base
- Break up the cones of sumac in a pitcher or large liquid measuring bowl and cover with cool water. Mash the berries around with your fingers for a minute or two, then set aside to steep. (Very fresh cones might only take 30 minutes, while drier, less sour ones might need to steep overnight.)
- Strain through a fine mesh or coffee filter and refrigerate. (At this point, you can sweeten to taste and use as a stand-alone drink if you aren't going to move on with the mocktails.)
For the Blackberry Syrup Base
- Add all ingredients to a medium saucepan and heat to boiling over medium-high heat, "mushing" the blackberries with the back of a fork to release juices. Once boiling and fragrant, remove from heat, strain, and cool to room temperature. Set aside while you make the rest of the recipe, or refrigerate for later.
Bitter Forager's Rescue
- Using well-chilled ingredients, add the syrup to a tumbler or tall drink glass. Next, add the sumac drink base, a splash of bitters and 2-3 ice cubes. Top off with tonic water. (You may use slightly more or less of the tonic water depending on the size of your glass.) Garnish with a lavender bud "swizzle" or a sprig of sage leaves or flowers.
- (Use well-chilled ingredients.) Muddle (lightly mash) the blackberries in the bottom of a tumbler or tall glass. Add the sumac drink base, then the syrup and 2-3 ice cubes. Top off with club soda. (You may use slightly more or less club soda depending on the size of your glass.) Garnish with a lavender bud "swizzle" or a sprig of sage leaves or flowers.
- Using well-chilled ingredients, add the sumac base to a tumbler or tall drink glass. Next, add the orange juice. Slowly pour in the syrup on one side of the glass. You want it to sink to the bottom and help make nice layers for the "sunrise". Garnish with an orange slice.