Maybe it’s time to turn over a new leaf when it comes to your cooking – a tea leaf, that is.
Tea has traditionally served as an accompaniment to foods from stir-fries to scones. But more and more, it’s finding its way into recipes.
The idea is nothing new. Tea-smoked duck is a classic dish in China, as are tea eggs. The hard-boiled eggs first have their shells cracked all over, then are steeped in a pungent mixture of soy sauce, tea and spices, producing marbled patterns on the whites when they’re peeled.
Tea eggs are particularly popular during the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Snake starts Sunday – as symbols of golden nuggets, eaten to promote wealth and prosperity.
Ochazuke, a dish made by pouring green tea over cooked rice and adding various toppings, is commonplace in Japan, as is green tea ice cream. The Irish get into the act with barmbrack, a tea-based fruit bread that’s a fixture at Halloween.
But the concept of cooking with tea is increasingly crossing cultural lines, with modern twists. The latest tome on the subject, “Culinary Tea” by Cynthia Gold and Lise Stern (Running Press, 2010), offers recipes ranging from French steak au poivre (pepper steak) to Italian tiramisu to Texas chili.
“Incorporating tea into food doesn’t mean that food should taste like tea – often there’s no easily identifiable tea flavor from the tea used – but the tea adds an extra element that helps bring out the best a dish has to offer,” Gold and Stern write.
That may also be true nutritionally. Some studies suggest that green tea in particular can lower the risk of certain cancers and improve heart health.
Selecting the right tea for a recipe is sort of like pairing food and wine. Lightly processed green tea works well with fish and seafood; partially oxidized oolong partners nicely with poultry and pork; and fully oxidized black tea is a good match for meats and hearty foods.
Tea can be brewed in water, like you would for drinking, and added to a dish. Or it can be steeped in other liquids called for in a recipe, or included in a marinade or brine. Or it can be used dry, either whole or ground, in everything from rubs to dressings to desserts.
Water-brewed tea for cooking is typically made stronger, using more leaves than usual, to maximize flavor, but it’s important not to let it steep too long or else it can become bitter. To be extra cautious, tea expert Diana Rosen, co-author of “Cooking With Tea” (Periplus, 2000), suggests soaking the leaves in room-temperature water for a half-hour or so.
Darjeeling Fettuccine, in a curried coconut cream accented with floral, musky Darjeeling tea, native to India, is a popular menu item at EJ’s Garden Bistro in Browne’s Addition. (Recently closed for remodeling, the restaurant is scheduled to reopen Tuesday.)
“The key to that entire dish is making the tea correctly in the first place,” owner Mary Moltke said. “We use a lot of bags in a small amount of very hot water, and they aren’t in there very long.”
Moltke describes the resulting flavor as “kind of subtle. If you’re looking for it, thinking about it, it’s definitely there. You don’t want it to overwhelm, like eating your tea leaves.”
Dawn Kiki, owner of Brambleberry Cottage & Tea Shoppe, 206 E. Pacific Ave., serves tea luncheons Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., by appointment.
Her tea-based kitchen creations have included chocolate cakes made with Earl Grey-infused cream, and lemon cookies with whole herbal hibiscus, also used in the hot-pink icing. “It gives them a nice crispness and crunchiness,” she said
For one event, Kiki made a variety of truffles with matcha, a powdered Japanese green tea, using it both in fillings and to dust the white chocolate ones.
“We didn’t think they would be that popular – matcha is such a strong flavor – but they were a hit,” she said.
On the savory side, she has used genmaicha, a green tea combined with roasted brown rice, to add a nutty flavor to salad dressing, and plans to make a soup with smoky lapsang souchong.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” Kiki said. “You can find some wonderful flavor combinations.”
Here are some recipes to help get you started on your own experiments. Most call for loose-leaf tea; if you’re using teabags instead, one bag generally equals a teaspoon of leaves.
Steak au Poivre et Thé
Tea is used in both the zesty coating and creamy sauce in this adaption of the classic French steak dish from “Culinary Tea.” Make extra spice mixture and use it to season potatoes before roasting for an accompaniment.
2 tablespoons loose-leaf Earl Grey tea leaves, divided
1/2 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon black or Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon green or white peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon allspice berries
4 (6- to 8-ounce) filet mignon steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick
Fine sea salt to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
Put 1 tablespoon of the tea leaves in a medium bowl and add the boiling water. Steep, covered, for 4 minutes, then strain, discarding the leaves. Set aside.
In a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon tea leaves, peppercorns and allspice. Coarsely crush and pour onto a plate.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Lightly sprinkle each side of the steaks with salt and press into the pepper-tea mixture to lightly encrust.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Sear the filets until well colored, about 4 minutes per side. Turn and finish until desired doneness. (Check temperature with an instant-read thermometer; for medium-rare, steaks should be 145 degrees.) Remove skillet from heat, transfer steaks to an oven-safe plate and place in oven to keep warm.
Remove pan from heat, add the bourbon and ignite it using a long match. Let the alcohol burn off. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the reserved steeped tea and bring back to a simmer, scraping any bits from the pan. Reduce slightly, then add cream and let thicken over medium-low heat until the mixture coats a spoon. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt or more of the steeped tea as desired.
To serve, pour sauce to coat each of four plates and slice and fan the steaks on each plate, or serve whole over the sauce. Serve immediately, with additional sauce on the side.
Yield: 4 servings
Green Tea Salmon
Concentrated tea provides the base for the sauce in this recipe from Numi Tea. Serve over rice cooked in tea; jasmine is a good choice.
1 pound salmon fillet
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons sherry
2 bags green tea
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
Slice salmon into strips. Mix soy sauce and sherry, pour into a frying pan and marinate the salmon in the mixture for 10 minutes. Simmer over moderate heat until the marinade is mostly absorbed.
Meanwhile, pour boiling water over tea bags and steep 5 minutes. Squeeze out tea bags and stir in cornstarch. Pour the tea mixture over the salmon and cook another 5 minutes or until the sauce slightly thickens.
Toast sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over low heat until the seeds begin to jump, no more than 5 minutes. Mix the seeds into the salmon and sauce, or use as a garnish.
Yield: 2 servings
Mixed Green Salad with Goat Cheese, Orange Slices and Matcha Dressing
This salad with its distinctive blend of flavors, from Alexis Siemons of the Teaspoons & Petals food blog, was the winner of the January 2011 About.com tea recipe contest. The original recipe called for one cup of greens, but two seems to better match the proportions of the other ingredients; if you like dressing, you might want to make extra.
1 teaspoon matcha (powdered Japanese green tea)
1 teaspoon hot water
1 teaspoon grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil, like canola or safflower)
2 teaspoons agave (or honey)
1 pinch sea salt
2 cups mixed greens
2 tablespoons goat cheese
Place matcha in a small bowl or cup and mix with 1 teaspoon hot water to make a paste. Mix in the oil and agave. Slice the orange in half and squeeze 1 teaspoon of the juice into the dressing. Add sea salt and stir well.
Place greens in a bowl. Peel the remaining half of the orange, cut into small slices and place over greens. Break goat cheese into small dabs and place over greens. Top with matcha dressing.
Yield: 2 servings
This easy recipe for tea-flecked cookies comes from The Cooking Channel, courtesy of Aneta Szot of Cookie Road Bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y. We can vouch for the vanilla mint version.
3 teaspoons loose-leaf tea (such as Earl Grey, rose, vanilla mint or chai)
1 1/2 sticks ( 3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup cake flour, spooned and leveled
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Red, green or yellow food coloring, optional
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the tea, butter and sugar. Pulse until the tea is finely chopped and the mixture is creamy.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt; add to the food processor. Add a few drops of food coloring, if using, and process 1 minute. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and the color is even. Form into a 12-inch rectangular log. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until very firm, 4 to 5 hours. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Transfer the dough to a cutting board and slice into 3/4-inch slices. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake until slightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Yield: 16 cookies
Chicken Noodle Oolong Soup
This soothing soup, with a lightly tea-flavored broth, comes from New Zealand-based Stir Tea. Adding unsteeped tea to the cooked soup at the end provides an interesting flavor and texture, but may not be to everyone’s taste; try it both ways.
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
6 cups chicken stock (salt-free or reduced salt)
1/2 cup diced carrots
2 cups cooked and diced chicken
2 tablespoons oolong tea, divided
3 ounces medium egg noodles
In a large pot, cook celery and onion in the oil or butter until tender. Add remaining ingredients except noodles and 1 tablespoon tea leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add noodles and cook 10 minutes longer or until noodles are tender, stirring occasionally (you may need to add more water). Season with salt and pepper to taste. One or two minutes before serving, sprinkle remaining tea leaves on top of soup.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Earl Grey Crème Brûlée
Citrusy Earl Grey tea lends depth of flavor and a rich color to this traditional custard from “Culinary Tea,” which has long been enjoyed as the third course of the Afternoon Tea at Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers. Tea can steep longer in milk and cream than in water without becoming bitter, as the dairy buffers the tannins.
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
1/4 cup Earl Grey tea leaves
1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon dried lavender (optional)
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 egg yolks
Granulated sugar for topping
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the cream, half-and-half, and 1/4 cup of the sugar just to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to low. Add the tea leaves, orange zest and lavender, if using. Halve the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the mixture, then add the pod.
Stir and remove from the heat and let steep, covered, for 10 to 40 minutes, tasting periodically, until it reaches the flavor you like. Strain and discard the leaves. If you did not use the vanilla bean, add the vanilla extract.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and remaining 5 tablespoons sugar and whisk lightly until thickened and pale yellow ribbons form when the whisk is lifted, about 2 minutes. Add the warm infused cream a few tablespoons at a time, whisking continuously, until the temperature of the cream roughly equals that of the eggs. Then add the remaining cream and whisk gently.
Divide the custard among 8 (4- to 6-ounce) ramekins or espresso cups. Place the ramekins in a baking pan with sides at least 2 inches high and pour hot tap water into the pan, being careful not to splash into the custard, so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Cover the pan with foil and bake until the custard is just set. If the ramekins are small and shallow, begin checking at 20 minutes; larger ramekins can take 45 minutes or more. Be careful not to overcook. The edges should be firm but the center should still jiggle; the custard will continue baking after being removed from the oven.
Remove the custards from the water bath, let cool for 15 minutes at room temperature, then chill completely, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Just before serving, sprinkle surface of each custard with a thin layer of sugar. If you have a brûlée torch, melt the sugar until golden and bubbling. Alternatively, place the ramekins on a baking sheet and broil (close to the broiler) for about 1 minute, just until sugar melts and turns dark gold. Serve immediately.
Variations: Substitute different teas and flavorings for the Earl Grey, lavender, vanilla, and orange zest, such as:
• Green tea, slices of fresh ginger, and rose petals
• Jasmine tea and vanilla
• Black tea, 1 tablespoon bourbon, and 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and mace
• Any masala chai tea blend
Yield: 8 servings