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Tea on a plate a splash of taste

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Welcome to tea. Not afternoon tea with its tempting array of sweet and savory nibbles. Not even high tea, the English country version of supper with fresh eggs, home-cured ham and preserves. Forget tea altogether as a beverage. It has been reinvented as the latest trendy food ingredient.

I first encountered tea on my plate in the Paris tearoom of Marriage Freres. The classic little almond cakes called financiers were flavored with green tea, adding springlike color and an almost citrus zest. Marriage Freres is a tea-import company that dates back 150 years, but its menu is cutting-edge, featuring dishes such as roast cod in a crust of green tea and sesame seeds; foie gras with a confit of onion, flowery with China tea; and herb salad in a tea-oil dressing.

Tea mixed with sea salt is an intriguing condiment for grilled fish and vegetables and for marinated salmon or beef carpaccio. Simply stir 2 to 3 tablespoons of matcha or other powdered green tea with an equal amount of fine sea salt. (The tea does not mix evenly if the salt is coarse.) The mix will keep up to a month in an airtight container, but it is so simple that I usually make it fresh.

Exploring further, back home I tried simmering tea in rice, where I found it picked up basmatilike fragrance. But it was the dried kidney beans that got me hooked. I don't care for beans (too many canned baked beans in college), so I was skeptical when a friend suggested simmering white beans with a bag of black tea per cup of water. I expected zero effect, but I was wrong. By the end of cooking, the beans had turned from white to earthy brown. They were deliciously tender and tasty, thanks to the tannin content in tea. Tannin is, after all, the compound that tans and softens leather.

I've since found that tea can be as varied as wine in cooking, with a similar depth and wide range of flavors.

These chicken breasts are simmered in tea flavored with honey and lemon; then the cooking liquid is reduced to a savory caramel glaze.

Glazed chicken breasts in a honey lemon tea

In summer, add a radicchio salad and corn on the cob; in winter, serve with grilled radicchio and baked squash.

Water

2 tablespoons loose orange pekoe tea or 6 tea bags

2 tablespoons honey

1 lemon, juice and pared zest

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt and pepper

Pour 2 cups boiling water over loose orange pekoe tea or tea bags. Stir in honey with pared zest and lemon juice. Simmer 3 minutes, stirring just until honey melts. Leave to infuse and cool. Lay two boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a frying pan and strain tea mixture over. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover, bring to boil and poach just below boiling on top of the stove, turning once, 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove chicken breasts when very tender if pierced with a two-pronged fork. Turn heat to high and boil cooking liquid until reduced and starting to caramelize. Replace chicken breasts and continue cooking, turning them so they become golden brown and coated with sauce, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, slicing to show the white meat inside.

Makes 2 servings.

All true tea comes from the bush Camellia sinensis, gathered from the young sprigs on the tea bush. Green teas taste like their name, fresh and grassy, and the flavor impact is immediate. To prevent oxidation, the green leaves are treated by heat (the Chinese method) or by steam (as in Japan) before being air-dried. There are several styles of green tea, the most prized coming from the largest leaves and buds. Everyday green tea is powdered, and I'm astounded by how little is needed -- a teaspoonful is often enough -- to add characteristic taste to ice creams and custards such as creme brulee. A green-tea sorbet flavored with lime is one of my favorites.

Tea and lime sorbet

I like a strong Assam or other Indian tea for this sorbet, which freezes to a pretty copper-gold color. Green tea can be good, too.

Water

1 cups sugar, or more

3 limes, juice and pared zest

10 tea bags

Heat 3 cups water with 1 cups sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add lime zest, cover pan and simmer until zest is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove zest, finely chop it and replace in syrup. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan, add tea bags and leave to infuse over very low heat 10 minutes. Discard bags, squeezing out liquid, and add tea to lime syrup with the lime juice. Taste and adjust amount of sugar. Chill mixture, then freeze in an ice cream maker. Makes about 1 quart sorbet.

Black tea is far more varied than green tea, coming from many different countries and being treated in several ways. The best is grown at high altitudes on steep slopes, for example from Sri Lanka (the tea is called Ceylon) and India (Assam). Black tea may be lightly or heavily oxidized (aka fermented), and there are smoked varieties, too, such as lapsang souchong. You'll pick up the nuances of taste in food at once.

One of my most successful experiments has been tea-smoked scallops, for which I substitute soaked tea leaves for the usual wood chips. If, like me, you don't have a stovetop smoker, a wok does just fine. The dark, spicy tea from Assam gives a slight bite to the sweetness of scallops, and a lemony Russian tea does well, too. The same principle of smoking with tea can be applied to seafood, particularly shrimp and chicken. As a ballpark, you should allow 2 to 3 teaspoons of tea per serving of chicken breast or portion of fish, such as salmon, halibut or bluefish.

Tea-smoked scallops

Serve the scallops hot with green fettuccine tossed in walnut or olive oil. The scallops also make great cocktail hors d'oeuvres, speared on toothpicks and served at room temperature.

1 pound large sea scallops

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons sea salt

Water

2 tablespoons Ceylon or Indian black tea leaves

Discard tough crescent-shaped muscles from 1 pound large sea scallops. (Muscles adhere to side of scallop.) Rinse scallops, drain and dry on paper towels. Mix brown sugar with sea salt, toss with scallops and chill about 10 minutes. Pour cold water to cover 2 tablespoons black tea leaves and leave to soak 10 minutes also.

Drain leaves and spread in bottom of a wok. Set a rack on top. Rinse scallops, dry on paper towels and arrange on rack so they do not touch each other. Cover wok with a lid or foil and put over medium heat. Watch until you see wisps of smoke, then allow 2 to 3 minutes of cooking time, depending on size of scallops. They should remain translucent in the center. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 2 as a main course.

Blue tea, named for the bluish tinge of the leaves, is better known as oolong, popular in Taiwan (still called in the tea world by its old name of Formosa). Oolong has the depth of flavor of black tea with a touch of grassy green, and it is useful in poaching and simmering.

When making a quick supper of chicken and vegetable soup, I have found that a few spoonfuls of leafy oolong transform commercial chicken broth. The tea leaves themselves are delectable, tender but holding shape in the broth. In desserts, black teas that are highlighted with spices such as cinnamon or flavors such as apricot or raspberry are useful when poaching fruit.

Black tea leaves stuck in an empty teapot have pursued me all my life when washing up, so it was a surprise to me that freshly infused leaves can be good to eat. Looking beyond chicken broth, I found this offbeat green salad in which tea leaves are added like an herb. Simply soak half a cup of a large-leaf tea, such as oolong, for at least 12 hours in a generous amount of cold water, drain thoroughly without squeezing the leaves and toss them with butter lettuce in a dressing of raspberry vinegar and vegetable oil. The tea adds an elusive, flowery fragrance.

Cooking with tea has been full of surprises. Did you know that black tea leaves can be powdered in the pepper grinder? The leaves behave exactly like pepper. Just empty out the peppercorns, add the tea and, after a few turns of the grinder, you'll have the pure taste of tea in powder form.

Try sprinkling black Indian tea instead of pepper on beef carpaccio or lamb chops or jasmine tea on duck. Grind smoky lapsang black tea and mix it with yogurt as a simple sauce for smoked salmon or mackerel.

Scatter tea powder, particularly of green tea, over fruit salad. Add it to breads and cookies, chocolate mousse and chocolate cakes. Then ask your guests the identity of this new flavoring and enjoy their bewilderment. For tea on the Web, visit www.mariagefreres.com.

Tea leaf chicken in broth

We're all accustomed to dried herb leaves in our soups and stews, so this brilliant vegetable consomme flavored with tea leaves is only one step further. Cooking takes about 10 minutes, making this an ideal simple supper for serving with crusty bread. Any large-leaf tea from China or Japan, whether green or oolong-style, is appropriate.

Water

cup (about 1/4 ounce) large-leaf green tea

1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast

1 quart chicken stock or 2 14-ounce cans

Grated zest lemon

Salt and pepper

2 medium carrots, thinly sliced

2 medium potatoes, halved and thinly sliced

1 medium parsnip, thinly sliced

8 to 10 snow peas, trimmed and halved diagonally

Pour 1 cup boiling water over tea leaves and leave until tepid, about 15 minutes. Cut chicken breast in julienne strips. Bring stock to a boil in a soup pot with lemon zest and a little salt and pepper.

Add carrots, potatoes and parsnip and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in chicken and snow peas and continue simmering until chicken and vegetables are just tender, 2 to 3 minutes more. Stir in tea leaves and liquid, taste, adjust seasoning and serve. Makes 2 servings.

Anne Willan's latest book is "Quick Fixes and Kitchen Tips" (Wiley).

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