Next time you sit down for a cup of tea, take in the aromatic steam while it’s brewing. The smoky flavor of hojicha, a drink made from green tea that’s been smoked over charcoal, might suggest the aroma of a woodsy campfire. Genmaicha, which combines grassy green tea with crisped and popped brown rice, is simultaneously lush and earthy. Assam can be as malty and rich as chocolate.
All of which is a reminder that you can do a lot more with tea than drink it. Tea is a fantastic culinary ingredient, adding depth and complexity to food without adding fat or dairy or other animal products.
Because the cultivation of tea stretches back thousands of years, cultures have been experimenting with different uses for the leaves for just as long. (The Chinese have been tea-smoking ducks and cooking eggs in tea for centuries.) Not only has tea been ritualized, it’s found its way into a wide variety of cooking methods.
You can use tea in both cold and hot smoking, you can steep liquids with tea — not only water, but also dairy, oils and vinegars — and use it as part of spice rubs. (It’s great with just salt and pepper as a crust for salmon.) You can grind or chop tea and stir it into doughs and batters, use it as a poaching liquid or in making broths — or even use it in place of broths in recipes.
Robert Wemischner, a longtime pastry chef and cooking instructor, is the author of "Cooking With Tea," which was published 15 years ago, long before the current trend of tea-infused panna cottas. Wemischner’s favorite tea at the moment is probably keemun, a black tea from northern China, which, he says, works particularly well when added to seafood dishes. And don’t forget braising in tea. Brisket, he says, is fantastic when made with tea.
Kuniko Yagi, formerly executive chef at Hinoki & the Bird and before that at Sona, both in Los Angeles, says her favorite tea is hojicha. She grew up drinking it, even as a baby, in Japan. Now she makes peaches en papillote with the tea, serving them with whipped cream that she also flavors with hojicha. She’ll infuse the tea in a creme brulee custard and fold it into the batter of a chiffon cake. She also makes glorious simple shortbread cookies by stirring crushed tea leaves into a dough made with brown rice flour.
If all this sounds a bit complicated — especially if you’re used to just throwing your tea into a pot of hot water — try making rice with your favorite tea. Just brew a few cups of tea, cool it and use it instead of water in a rice cooker. (A particularly great combination is genmaicha and Japanese short-grain brown rice.) The results are subtle and kind of miraculous, the rice even nuttier and more floral and earthy than before.
Or try cooking udon noodles in tea, a pine-smoked black tea for example. Add vegetables and a splash of soy sauce or sesame oil. The results are aromatic, soothing — and vegan. And if that’s way too healthful for you, you can make those shortbread cookies for dessert.
SIMPLE SECRETS TO MAKING TEA
One thing to watch out for, if you’re cooking with tea or just making yourself a cup, is to not boil the tea or use water that’s too hot. Also take care when you steep it.
For every tea — and there are thousands of them — there’s a different method of brewing that will bring out the best of the leaves.
How to determine this? Just taste the tea as it steeps and strain it before it gets bitter.
And although tea accouterments are pretty swank, all you really need to make a good cup is a palate, a bit of patience and a simple strainer.
UDON WITH TEA BROTH
» 1/4 cup pine-smoked lapsang souchong tea
» 1 small strip konbu (seaweed)
» 1 large slice fresh ginger
» 1 cup of thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
» 2 tablespoons sesame oil
» 6 ounces udon noodles
» 1 scallion, thinly sliced
» 1 cup spinach
» Soy sauce, as desired
» Black sesame seeds, for garnish
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil, remove from heat and cool slightly. Add tea, konbu and ginger, and set aside to steep for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, saute mushrooms in sesame oil until golden brown, then remove from heat and set aside in warm place.
Strain broth into small pot. Add udon and bring to a boil. When noodles froth up, add a cup of cold water. When water returns to a boil, reduce heat to gentle simmer until noodles are cooked.
Divide cooked noodles between two bowls. Briefly blanch spinach in hot broth, then strain. Add a few cups broth to each bowl, then top with mushrooms, spinach and scallion. Drizzle with soy sauce as desired and garnish with sesame seeds. Serve immediately. Serves 2.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including soy sauce as desired): 480 calories, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 70 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 14 g protein
» 1 pound skin-on salmon fillet
» 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
» 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
» 1 tablespoon genmaicha tea (green tea with toasted rice, found in Asian section of markets)
» 1 tablespoon olive oil
Pat salmon dry. Pulse pepper and salt together in coffee grinder, add tea and pulse once or twice, then spread onto skinned side of salmon.
Heat skillet over medium-high until hot; add oil. When oil begins to shimmer, add salmon, skin-side down. Cook until skin crisps, about 4 minutes, then cover and reduce heat to low.
Continue cooking until salmon is just cooked through, an additional 4 to 5 minutes; test for doneness by cutting into center of salmon. Halve fillet before serving. Serves 2.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 550 calories, 37 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 600 mg sodium, 4 g carbohydrate, 47 g protein, no fiber or sugar
Adapted from recipe by Kuniko Yagi
» 2 tablespoons hojicha tea
» 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
» 1/3 cup sugar
» 1 egg
» 1-1/3 cups brown rice flour
In small saute pan, toast tea over medium-low until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then grind with spice grinder to a coarse powder.
Cream together butter and sugar, then add egg and mix well. Add ground tea and flour, mix well, then wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate until firm, 15 to 30 minutes.
Remove dough and roll into log approximately 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic again and refrigerate or freeze until very firm, about 1 hour.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut dough into rounds a little thicker than 1/4 inch. Place them on parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart.
Bake until cookies are set and lightly golden underneath, 15 to 20 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Approximate nutritional information, per 2-cookie serving: 160 calories, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 19 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 2 g protein
Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.