Out Of The Cup

Trendy tea leaves can add a delightful flavor to food

January 24, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

Tea isn't just for sipping anymore.

It is for baking. For roasting. It is for souping up stocks and tenderizing meat. It is for stir-frying vegetables and for marinating seafood.

Tea can make a salad zing, and it can make whipped cream shine.

American chefs and home cooks are learning what Asian cooks have known for centuries: Tea, whether a smoky black or a grassy green, can give surprising dimension to food without adding calories, fat or sodium.

Tea is both cutting-edge and natural.

"It is inexpensive and it is easy to find, and it adds a really elegant flair to a home-cooked meal," said Beth Johnston, founder of Teas Etc., a mail-order tea purveyor that buys directly from tea growers.

"It is both really impressive and really simple."

A new fascination with the health benefits of tea has contributed to its increased popularity in this country.

And it is easier than ever to find a variety of good loose teas on grocery store shelves where only mass-produced bags of tea "dust" used to sit.

Opening a jar of fresh loose tea "is like opening up a fresh spice jar," said Sara Perry, food columnist for The Oregonian newspaper and author of The New Tea Book. "It smells good right away. ... If you buy good tea, you will notice."

And, as does any quality ingredient, good tea begs to be used for more than just an afternoon "cuppa."

"People have discovered tea as a seasoning and as a finishing ingredient," said Diana Rosen, author of several books about tea, including her most recent, Meditations With Tea.

"It is a way to use something that is a little bit unusual, but something that has an ephemeral quality that can take a dish above and beyond."

Tea has a rare versatility as an ingredient. It can be pulverized and used as part of a rub for meat or to season the cavity of poultry before roasting.

It can be used to flavor the water in which rice or noodles are cooked. Steeped, it can be added to stocks or used to deglaze a pan, poach a fish or create a sauce.

Tea can be used to smoke meat, to add crunch to a salad or to flavor a vinaigrette. Tea is a delightful surprise in baked goods, and it has the gumption to stand up to chocolate.

Tea is wonderful when steeped in creams for desserts or added to citrus juices. Strong, smoky teas are especially good with earthy vegetables, such as mushrooms.

There is even a tea oil, made from a pressing of the Camellia sinensis seeds from which all tea comes. It has a sweet, herbal aroma and a high smoke point, which makes it excellent for cooking.

"Some teas define how they should be used in cooking. Sweet, grassy, green [teas] are wonderful with produce in salads or with briny shrimp and other shellfish. Soft Keemuns and edgy Yunnans taste great with poultry. Cameroon with its chocolate-like aftertaste is ideal with desserts or with sweetish sauces for pork or chicken," writes Rosen in her book, Cooking With Tea.

Sunni Gilliam, owner of Baltimore's Teavolve on Eastern Avenue, said local chefs who buy tea for their recipes are among her customers. She is also working with a caterer to plan a "tea dinner," to demonstrate how easy - and surprising - it is to include tea in cooking.

"One of the favorites is lapsang souchong," she said. "It is a tea that's smoked over pine, so it is great for grilling."

She also likes to use the African herbal red tea rooibos in baked goods, especially cookies, because of its natural sweetness.

Tea is like wine: Never cook with something you wouldn't bother to drink. And use it to complement the food, not overwhelm it.

"Tea makes the flavors in food more complex and more interesting," said Rosen. "It has tremendous versatility. You almost can't make a mistake unless you over-brew the tea. Then its worst elements emerge."

How to begin?

Go to the grocery store and purchase a small variety of teas. You don't have to spend a lot, Rosen said.

There are Web sites sponsored by tea companies and others that have scores of recipes for using tea in every course. (Some will be familiar from Chinese menus: thousand-year-old eggs, tea-smoked duck and green tea sorbet.)

"Play around," Rosen said. "See what you like. You don't need much. Just a pinch. Teas can sell for $300 a pound, but the actual cost of what you would use in cooking might be 25 cents."

"Tea has a special place in so many cultures," said author Perry. "But it has been in disfavor in this country ever since the British tried to force the colonies to buy their surpluses."

Tea is the second most popular beverage - behind water - in the world, but it lags far behind coffee in consumption in the United States.

Even so, according the Tea Association of the USA, tea sales have more than tripled in the past 15 years, exceeding $6 billion last year, as baby boomers take note of tea's healthy reputation.

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