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Cooking With Tea
by Elliot Essman
On a momentous day in the year 2737 B.C., Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung was in the process of boiling a pot of water on his terrace, when the wind blew several leaves from an overhanging plant into the pot. Not wishing to tinker with fate, Shen-Nung left the leaves right where they had fallen so they would brew into a beverage. Not only was he delighted with the flavor and aroma of the result, he found the new drink invigorating. The news quickly spread that the camellia sinensis plant, which we now know as tea, would add vigor and stamina to anyone who would drink it.

On the sixteenth day of December, 1773, in response to a minuscule tax on tea levied without their consent by the Parliament in London, a number of otherwise respectable citizens of Boston, dressed as Indians, forced themselves aboard a merchant ship crammed with tea and, over a period of three hours, threw 342 chests of tea into the harbor. Before this event, most people thought that Crown and colonies could patch up their little differences. Once the tea began to sink into Boston Harbor, reconciliation was never to be. No one then could have imagined that the new nation, conceived in wet tea, would one day dedicate itself to the proposition that tea may also be served iced.

After losing their American colonies because of poor tea strategy, the British licked their wounds, and continued their addiction to tea. China, their only source, demanded silver and gold for their tea instead of buying British goods in return. The pragmatic British solution to this growing fiscal problem was to ship opium from British India to China to addict literally millions of Chinese. When China objected, Britain sent its gunboats. It humiliated China in the Opium War of 1839-1842, grabbing Hong Kong in the process. A few years later the British cemented their tea supply for good by smuggling tea seeds out of China to create an industry in India and Sri Lanka. The Chinese, for their part, left opium use behind. They recently got Hong Kong back. But the Chinese tea habit remains as strong as ever. In China today, a billion people will drink an average of five cups each. Tomorrow, they'll consume another five billion cups.

Tea has been part of human history for more than 4,000 years. After water, more humans drink tea than any other beverage. Varieties of tea (though camellia sinensis is the only true genus of tea plant) may be as varied, and as coveted, as those of wine. But tea is more than a beverage. Worldwide, it is a potent, and supremely flexible, culinary ingredient. Tea makes an excellent marinade for meats and poultry. For chicken pieces (a whole broiler fryer chicken's worth), I create a marinade based on a cup of plain yogurt, two tablespoons of finely ground black tea (though you can use nearly any variety), a cup of chopped shallots or onions, a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper, juice of a lemon, two teaspoons salt and a generous supply of black pepper. I marinate the chicken pieces at least overnight in the refrigerator. I prefer to then bread and pan-fry my chicken, scraping off the marinade first, but you could also leave the marinade on the chicken in order to bake the pieces in an oven.

When I marinate beef, I will nearly always cook with the remaining marinade, since the marinade draws off juices from the meat as it tenderizes it. I use brewed tea as an ingredient (freshly brewed, please, not this morning's leftover). The tannins in the tea tenderize the meat in a manner similar to red wine, but at a much lower cost. Begin with a standard mixture of a carrot, a stalk of celery, and two onions (a mirepoix), all cubed. "Sweat" these in a saucepan in a quarter cup of olive oil over medium heat until they begin to soften, two or three minutes. Add three cups of brewed black tea, half a cup of wine vinegar, ten black peppercorns, two sprigs fresh thyme, a bay leaf, and two cloves. Simmer gently until the vegetables become tender, perhaps fifteen minutes. Take off the heat, add another quarter cup of olive oil, let cool, pour into a sizeable bowl, then marinate the meat completely immersed in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, twice that at least for game.

Ground dry tea works particularly well with sweet glazes for meats like chicken and pork. I usually start with a base of preserves; apricot jam gives the most consistent results. The astringency of black tea offsets the sweetness of the preserves, but you can use green tree or even herbal mixtures to vary flavors. (Botanically, herbal "tea" isn't really tea at all, but we call it "tea" and can certainly use it like tea.) My basic formula for meats: one cup preserves, one tablespoon tea leaves (buy it loose; don't just open a tea bag), two tablespoons spices (chiles are a good possibility), half a cup wine vinegar. I bring the mixture to a boil and cook it down until it is thick enough so that I can brush it on my meat without it dripping, at least five minutes.

Apricot glazes are also widely used in baking and pastry, as fillings between layers in cakes, or to top fruit tarts. Let an infusion of chamomile or other fragrant herbal tea brew for at least ten minutes. In a thick-bottomed saucepan, combine one pound of apricot preserves with two tablespoons granulated sugar and one-third cup of the chamomile tea (you can, of course, drink the rest). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat while stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer to reduce the mixture slightly, perhaps 3-4 minutes, until it has a good consistency for brushing over your pastry. Be careful not to overcook or caramelize the sugar. Once the glaze is complete, remove the pan from the heat, strain out the solids, and use the warm glaze before it starts to set.

As you glaze with tea, so can you deglaze. Deglazing is a technique used to create the basis for a sauce by using a liquid to dissolve all the tasty browned bits of meat, poultry or fish that would otherwise be left in a skillet or roasting pan after cooking. Wine or stock is often used, but brewed tea of nearly any variety will do. The amount of liquid you use will depend on the size of the pan, but the technique is simple: after skimming off excess fat and cooking liquid, splash in the tea, then simmer gently for a few minutes, all the while scraping up the flavorful residue from the bottom and sides of the pan. A dash of balsamic vinegar might add complexity, and of course you could then process the sauce further with any of a number of thickeners: eggs, butter, flour. To deglaze a pan-fried steak, for example, I would use a cup of China Black or Earl Grey tea and a tablespoon of sherry vinegar. I may opt for the gentler flavor of green tea to deglaze a pan I've used for chicken or veal.

Whenever a recipe or cooking technique calls for water, it doesn't take a genius to realize that another water-based liquid could add greater flavor. We often use soup, broth or stock, tomato or orange juice; tea can serve the same purpose if used with good judgment. Tea gives us flexibility. We can use black, green, or oolong teas or numerous herbal teas, in whatever strength or concentration we require, as long as we use the same amount of liquid called for in the recipe. If you simmer in water, you can simmer in tea. You can cook rice, pasta or couscous in tea, or even re-hydrate dried mushrooms or fruits using tea. Black or green teas may be too strong for some foods, in which case jasmine, mint or chamomile may impart their delicate flavors. On the other hand, smoky Lapsang souchong tea adds the perfect challenge to dried wild mushrooms. You'll get good results with Asian noodles by using green tea. For desserts, when you make syrup, use a tea infusion in place of the water; you can in turn use the tea-flavored syrup to soak (macerate) fruit for fruit salads and compotes. Herbal teas work especially well for this.

Tea makes ideal fuel for cooking with smoke. You can rig up your own smoker with a foil-lined wok or a combination of pots and pans, but consider buying a stovetop home smoker that allows you to add fuel to one compartment and food to another. Since the process creates a lot of smoke (which is, of course, the point) you need a good exhaust fan, and you'll also need to stand by your stove to make sure things don't get out of hand. A bit of trouble, perhaps, but the results will be worth it. I get my best smoking results burning black or oolong tea with chicken or other small birds like quail. I may be limiting myself, but to me tea smoke calls for Asian flavorings; I'll season the bird with soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, Chinese fine-spice powder, a dash of Hoisin or Szechuan hot sauce, and sometimes Japanese sake. Stoves differ as much as birds, but twenty minutes usually does it. When you finish the smoking process, get rid of the spent tea as soon as you can, otherwise you'll be appreciating the aroma in your home for longer than you had in mind.

When brewing tea for any purpose, use quality water; if you use brewed tea for cooking, make sure to carefully strain out the leaves first. Tea bags are great for day-to-day drinking, given the demands of real, everyday life, but when you cook with tea, you will get better quality control if you use loose tea. Store tea in an opaque airtight container to protect it from absorbing moisture (its worst enemy) or odors from other foods. Buy your tea in small amounts from reputable dealers. It's no crime to throw out aging tea you may find in the back of your cupboard, but you might also think to save it for your next trip to Boston, where you can have the sublime pleasure of dumping it into the harbor. Top -- Food Articles Home

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