Tea: Desire for convenience keeps us from full experience |
Food & Drink

Tea: Desire for convenience keeps us from full experience

Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world, after water. But it is a second-class citizen in our nation of hot-liquid drinkers, no matter how much the tea numbers are trending upward.

That’s surprising, considering that tea — green as well as black — was the go-to refreshment in America long before colonists dumped 340 chests of it into Boston Harbor.

These days, the tea bag rules here and in England. Problem is, it’s the coffee equivalent of instant granules. We can do better, America.

Nonetheless, Bruce Richardson sees progress. “We are enjoying a tea renaissance right now,” says the author of 14 books on tea and the owner of a tea wholesale business in Danville, Ky. (Also bullish: Starbucks, hence its 2012 acquisition of the robust Teavana chain.) He is convinced that 20-year-olds are getting hip to leaves, coming in to sample single-plantation varieties and blends at his tea bar. “They appreciate the health aspects.”

Perhaps that’s because of tea’s comparatively mild jolt. Typical brewed black teas contain about one-third the caffeine found in coffee (55 milligrams vs. 150 milligrams in an 8-ounce serving), yet there’s a contradiction in the cup, as Richardson puts it. True Camellia sinensis, or tea leaves processed differently to create black, oolong, white and green teas, contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps the brain to simultaneously relax and concentrate. In other words, a little buzz with focus. No wonder tea drinkers feel good about pouring four to six cups per day.

Ask a coffee aficionado what he doesn’t like about tea, and the response might be the same as when the question is turned around for a tea lover: bitterness. Although the reasons for bitter coffee are various, the cause of bitter tea is more likely a matter of over-steeping, which might entail using water that’s too hot as well as letting the infusion go on too long.

Which leads back to the tea bag, really. Ever since its invention in early 20th-century America, the tidy packet has simplified teamaking. Hands-on prowess with loose-leaf tea has become rare. And the quality of the tea in the bags has been unreliable.

Tea brewed via tea bags accounted for more than 65 percent of all tea consumed in the United States in 2012, according to the Tea Association of the USA.

“I just don’t get it,” says Linda Neumann, co-owner with Michelle Brown of four Teaism shops in the Washington area. “I think if more people took the time to steep and strain instead of dunk and dash, the world would be a better place.”

Not a surprising position for her to take, given Teaism’s exclusive trade in loose-leaf teas and tisanes, which are herbal infusions (not real tea). However, quality is at the heart of the matter. What’s in tea bags “doesn’t come close to the quality of loose-leaf tea. It’s just not of value,” Neumann says. Walk into their Alexandria, Va., shop, for example, and you can plunk down $15 for a mere 2 ounces of Jinzhen, a Chinese black tea with golden-tipped leaves and a light chocolate aroma in its brew. That works out to about 80 cents per cup. Affordable.

“People think loose-leaf tea is too hard,” she says. “But tea is really very simple.”

Tea has been closely associated with medicinal use and health benefits for centuries. In the past decade or so, consumers have sought out green tea, drawn to its antioxidant properties and studied ability to help prevent cardiovascular disease. So, it stands to reason that the full potential of loose-leaf green teas would be preferable to tea bags that can contain little more than tea “dust,” or fannings.

Getting familiar with tea brewing basics is key. Black teas are steeped with hotter water than green teas, and each type of tea has a recommended range of steeping times. A good tea shop will include specifics on each package, so there’s no need to commit the information to memory.

Experts prefer stainless-steel strainers with deep wells rather than tea balls or chambered teaspoons, so the loose-leaf tea has more room to expand ­— or bloom — as it steeps, for optimum flavor. Some teakettles have markings that allow for matching water temperature to tea variety. Travel tumblers and cups for the office sport built-in strainers designed to sit on built-in resting pads.

Bonnie S. Benwick is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

Mint Tea

Technically, this is a tisane, not a true tea. Use a good-quality loose-leaf tea for best flavor.

You’ll need a teapot with a 4-cup capacity.

Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).

3 12 cups water, preferably filtered

Level 2 teaspoons loose-leaf gunpowder green tea (may substitute Dragon Well green tea)

1 cup packed fresh mint leaves (may substitute a blend of mint and other fresh herbs), plus sprigs for garnish

2 tablespoons sugar, or more as needed

Bring the water to a rolling boil, in either a teakettle or saucepan over high heat; keep it at a boil while you make the tea.

Place the tea leaves in a teapot. Pour 12 cup of the boiling water over them. Let the teapot sit for 10 seconds, then swirl it for 5 seconds. Pour out that water, using a strainer as needed to make sure no leaves escape.

Pour another 12 cup of the boiling water into the teapot, immediately swirl it, then pour it out, making sure no leaves escape.

Fill the teapot with the remaining 2 12 cups of boiling water. Add the cup of fresh mint leaves; use a spoon to press them down gently. Sprinkle in the sugar. Cover the pot and let it steep for 2 minutes.

Pour out a glass of tea, then return it to the pot; repeat that step two or three more times to dissolve the sugar and blend the flavors. Taste for sweetness and strength, adding sugar or steeping a bit longer, if needed.

Pour the tea through a strainer into small, clear tea glasses. Garnish with the mint sprigs, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 50 calories, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 0 protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 0 dietary fiber, 0 sodium

Sweet Couscous

Couscous grains become extra fluffy when you spend a few extra minutes prepping them, as is done in this dessert recipe.

Serve with mint tea, as is the custom in Morocco.

Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).

12 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 23 cups warm water

1 13 cups fine-grain plain, dried couscous

4 tablespoons ( 12 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

12 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for optional garnish

18 teaspoon orange flower water

Scant 12 cup golden raisins

Ground cinnamon, for garnish

8 to 12 large pitted dates, preferably Medjool, for garnish

Scant 12 cup skinned/sliced or slivered almonds, toasted, for garnish (see note)

4 cups cold whole milk, for serving

Stir the sea salt into the warm water in a liquid measuring cup until the salt has dissolved. Place the couscous in a wide, shallow bowl and sprinkle it evenly with the salted water. Let it sit for 15 minutes, undisturbed, then check the grains; they should be tender and not mushy.

Use your hands to work in the butter, sugar and orange flower water until they have effectively disappeared, then blend in the raisins.

Use your hands to mound the couscous on a serving dish without packing it tightly or pressing it down. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and a little extra sugar, if desired, or use the two to create thin, decorative lines starting from the top of the mound. Arrange the dates and almonds around or on the couscous.

Serve with bowls of the milk, for spooning over individual portions.

Note: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes until evenly and lightly browned, shaking the pan as needed to keep them from scorching.

Makes 8 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories, 10 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 25 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 55 milligrams sodium

Green Tea-Infused Veggie Stuffing

Take this recipe for a test drive before the holidays; it might make your menu. The minted green tea, called for here and used two ways, brings a lot of flavor.

The mixture is chockablock with vegetables, too, so you could serve this as a meatless main course with cauliflower “steaks” or sauteed eggplant slices.

Make ahead: The stuffing can be assembled, tightly covered and refrigerated a day in advance, or frozen for up to 1 week. The baked stuffing can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. To reheat, you may wish to rehydrate with an extra 1 12 cups of green mint tea, cover with foil and bake in 325-degree oven till soft, then uncover for 10 minutes to crisp up the top.

Based on a recipe at

For the vegetable mixture:

4 cups water (for cooking the fresh spinach)

1 12 pounds fresh spinach, tough stems discarded (may substitute 2 cups defrosted chopped spinach, squeezed until dry)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions

1 small fennel bulb, cored and coarsely chopped (1 cup)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, coarsely chopped

28 ounces canned artichoke quarters (packed in water), drained and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons dried green mint tea (loose-leaf or taken from teabags; may substitute your favorite green loose-leaf tea)

For the stuffing:

Nonstick cooking spray

12 to 14 cups homemade or store-bought plain croutons

2 cups strongly brewed green mint tea (see note; may substitute your favorite green loose-leaf tea)

4 ounces soft goat cheese, preferably herbed

8 ounces chilled brie (rind discarded), cut into small chunks

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh marjoram leaves

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 12 cups whole or low-fat milk

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 cup plain panko bread crumbs

1 cup freshly grated pecorino-Romano cheese

To prepare the vegetable mixture: Combine the water and half of the spinach in a large pot over medium-high heat. When the liquid comes to a boil and the spinach begins to wilt, add the remaining half of the spinach. Cook, stirring, until just wilted but still bright-green. Drain, pat dry and coarsely chop.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onions and fennel; cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes or until they have softened and the onions are starting to pick up color. Stir in the garlic; cook for 4 minutes or until fragrant and softened.

Stir in the mushrooms; cook for about 8 minutes or until they have released their moisture, then add the artichokes and dried tea, stirring to incorporate. Turn off the heat; let the mixture cool in the pan.

To prepare the stuffing: Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a large roasting pan with cooking oil spray.

Place the croutons in a very large, wide mixing bowl. Pour the brewed tea over them and toss to coat, then add the goat cheese, brie, salt, pepper, and the marjoram and thyme leaves, stirring gently to incorporate.

Add the cooked vegetable mixture; stir gently to incorporate.

Whisk together the milk, eggs and lime juice in a large liquid measuring cup. Pour over the stuffing-vegetable mixture, stirring gently to incorporate.

Transfer the stuffing to the roasting pan; you don’t have to be too careful about packing down the mixture into an even layer, but you do want to spread it into the corners. Cover tightly with aluminum foil; roast for about 45 minutes, then uncover and sprinkle the panko and pecorino cheese on top. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned on top.

Serve warm; or cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Note: Use twice the amount of green tea (2 teaspoons per 8 ounces) when brewing the 2 cups of tea needed here; it acts like a concentrate.

Makes 8 to 16 servings (about 16 cups).

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Lamb With Garlic, Cumin and Coriander

This potent, super-savory lamb dish is typical in Sale, Morocco, a walled medieval city. Generous chunks of lamb or kid goat are rubbed in a salty garlic paste and ground cumin and cooked until nearly falling off the bone. Then — and this is what makes the dish stand out — ground coriander seed and olive oil are added to the pot, and the sauce is reduced until it is thick and dark, bold and a bit salty.

The recipe comes from a Rabat cook who insists on serving the meat with a pot of mint tea (see related recipe). The tea aids digestion and adds to the perfect combination of flavors.

The lamb is more flavorful when cooked on the bone; ask your butcher to cut the bone-in leg of lamb into 8 or 10 pieces (with bones attached to the meat). Or you can buy a single piece of boneless leg of lamb and cut it into large pieces.

Serve with plenty of bread.

Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).

1 bone-in leg of lamb (3 12 pounds), cut into 8 to 10 pieces

10 medium cloves garlic

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 12 cups water, or more as needed

13 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons ground coriander

Mint tea, for serving (see related recipe)

Rinse the lamb and pat it dry; place the pieces in a large mixing bowl.

Use a mortar and pestle to pound the garlic and salt into a smooth paste; rub this paste evenly all over of the lamb. Sprinkle the meat with half of the cumin, then rub it in. Turn the pieces, sprinkle them with the remaining cumin and repeat the rubbing step.

Transfer the meat to a large, heavy pot, Dutch oven or flameproof casserole with a snug-fitting lid. Pour the water into the (empty) mixing bowl, swirl to pick up any remaining spices, then pour it into the pot. Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat until the meat is very tender and comes away easily from the bone, for about 1 12 hours, moving the meat from time to time to keep it from sticking. Add a bit of water if needed to keep the sauce loose.

Stir in the oil and coriander; cook uncovered over medium heat until the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is thick and dark, for about 20 minutes, stirring a few times to make sure the meat is covered.

Place the meat on a serving dish or in a tagine, and cover with the sauce. Serve with the mint tea.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 390 calories, 23 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 120 milligrams cholesterol, 40 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 1,220 milligrams sodium

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