Tantalizing Tea Cuisine: Herbal Infusions Add a Splash of Excitement to Winter MealsLinda Gabris December 1, 2010
When I was a girl growing up in rural Muskoka, the world of tea was a relatively small one. In my grandmother’s pantry, there were two types of tea. One was declared ‘real’ tea, imported from China. The other type was known as ‘tisane’ or ‘herbal tea,’ which we gathered from the backyard gardens and woodlands, free for the picking!
Real or authentic tea is produced from the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis. The tea plant is native to Asia, and the most common types are black, green, white, yellow, and oolong.
On Grandma’s shelves there were just two varieties of imported tea, bought by the pound in loose leaves. The first variety was black, which was served as ‘supper’ tea when, according to Grandpa, only a cup of the real McCoy would quench the thirst of a hardworking man. And the second was green tea, which was saved for special afternoons when company called.
Tisanes, or herbal teas as they are loosely dubbed, refer to infusions made from fresh or dried leaves, flowers, fruits and berries of cultivated and wild plants, grains, and other picks for the pot that are unrelated to the true teas of the Camellia sinensis family.
Grandma, a well-respected herbalist in our neck of the woods, recommended herbal teas for all kinds of ailments and common complaints such as cold and ‘flu, constipation and diarrhea, upset stomach and gas, and more. In her book, real tea was also praised for its many medicinal properties, but she prescribed real tea less often because it was not as readily available for rural folks as were herbal picks.
Tea – of the Camellia sinensis variety – is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It is reputed as being a powerful antioxidant that boosts the immune system and helps the body ward off invaders such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Research has indicated that increasing one’s intake of black or green tea, which contains polyphenols, may reduce the risk of stomach, throat, skin, and ovarian cancer. It can help prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol.
Drinking herbal tea with a meal, according to Grandma’s old writings, keeps the digestive system running smoothly, helps rid the intestinal tract of bacteria buildup, and relieves the discomforts of overindulgence.
Nothing warms the heart and soothes the soul like a cup of tea, and Grandma vouched that sharing a pot of brew with a friend was one of life’s greatest pleasures. Of course, when I was a kid, what captivated me most about tea time was the magical moment when she would ‘read the leaves’ of an emptied cup and predict a healthy fortune for the drinker.
I am still fascinated by tea and I, like Grandma, enjoy putting every last drop of leftover tea to good use. In fact, sometimes when the teapot is drained dry, I’ll steep up a brand new batch especially for the purpose of adding a little tea excitement to one of her old recipes or to use in one of my favourite, more modern-day tea-based creations.
Below are a few ways to ‘tea up’ your diet. Try them and see how easy it is to enliven your cooking by using tea in place of water or other cooking liquids in many everyday recipes. For best results, use loose tea leaves, which are made from larger portions of the leaves than those found in tea bags, and thus contain more healthful essential oils, yielding richer flavour and aroma.
Before stocking up the pantry with exciting teas to tantalize your taste buds, keep in mind that buying fair trade organic tea is the ethical choice, so look for those that are certified with the Fair Trade mark.
Don’t increase measures when making tea especially for cooking (unless recipe specially calls for it), as tea which is brewed too strongly can cause a bitter, overpowering taste. Just make the tea as you normally would for drinking and it’ll be perfect for cooking purposes, too.
Other Interesting Tea Cooking Tips
Poaching liquid – use tea instead of water for poaching vegetables, fish, eggs, fruit, and other foods for a refreshing burst of tea flavour.
Soups, stocks, broth – add that spot of leftover tea to the soup kettle for richer colour and flavour. Black teas are better suited for dark stocks such as beef, and lighter teas complement poultry and fish soups and stocks. After adding thickener to the drippings in a roast pan, add boiling tea instead of water for deeper colour and richer flavour.
Finely-crumbled black loose tea leaves or powdered tea such as Matcha make tasty meat rubs and are said to help reduce the formation of carcinogens in charcoal-grilled meats, poultry, and fish. Mix the tea with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and ground peppercorns, roasted pepper flakes, dehydrated onions, or other seasonings of choice.
Use tea in place of water when making jellied desserts and moulded salads. Try black or darker tea in jellied vegetable salads, and white, green, or yellow tea in jellied fruit rings.
Rice is always nice when cooked in tea, but don’t stop there! Cook barley, wheat berries, millet, and other grains in different teas to enliven their flavour and deepen their colour.
To tea up your holiday cranberry sauce, use tea in place of water when cooking the berries.
Soak dried fruit in tea to rehydrate it before baking Christmas cakes, cookies, puddings, and other dishes. Use the fruit-infused tea as part of the liquid measure in the recipe.
Try using tea in place of water in the morning porridge pot. It really adds an exciting splash of flavour to the bowl.
When you need to soften All-Bran to add fibre to your muffins or other recipes, soak it first in scalding tea. Once it is soft, you can use it to add body to lentil loaves or patties, or anything that needs a little ‘binding’ power.
Here’s Grandma’s old remedy for treating a bout of constipation. It’s natural, gentle, and it works overnight! Simply put two or three dried prunes in a teacup and cover with freshly-steeped tea. Let stand until fruit is soft. Drink the tea and then eat the fruit. By morning, your system, as Grandma would say, will be back on track.
Brown Rice, Green Tea, and Lentil Porridge
Here’s a Japanese special (renzu mame iri genmai chagayu) that takes the cold out of a winter morning and is sure to carry you through to lunch without any “belly growls.” In Japan, this porridge is eaten after heavy New Year’s indulgence to help settle the stomach and bring the body back into balance. This meal is low in calories and high in fibre. It makes about six breakfast-sized servings and saves very well in a covered container in the fridge.
- 1 cup uncooked brown rice
- 1 cup green or yellow split peas or brown or other lentils (do not use red lentils as they end up being too mushy)
- 4 cups leftover or freshly brewed green tea
- Pinch of sea salt
1) Wash rice and lentils and put into kettle. Add strained tea and sea salt. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer one hour or until rice and lentils are tender and tea is absorbed, adding a little more tea or water if needed to keep from going dry. If porridge is too thin for your liking, uncover the pot and cook until excess liquid is evaporated. If too thick, thin down with more liquid.
2) In Japan, this is eaten with umeboshi (pickled fruit), furikake (a mixture of dried fish, sesame seeds, and seaweed), or with gomashio (ground sesame seeds mixed with salt). I like mine with a dash of soy sauce, a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, and toasted nori bits.
3) Note: to roast sesame seeds, heat a small cast-iron skillet and shake seeds over medium heat until golden. To make gomashio, grind toasted seeds with sea salt and put into a little dish to be ‘pinched’ with the fingers. You can toast nori sheets by heating a large cast-iron skillet and toasting the sheet a few seconds. Or buy nori sheets already toasted.
Grandma’s Cabbage Tea Soup
I love this soup as much today as I did when I was a kid, when Grandma would serve me a bowl to rid the chilblains after crossing the frozen fields on my way home from school. Makes two servings, but recipe can be multiplied, which I often do when the family comes in from having fun in the winter snow and needs a little warming up.
- 2 cups of leftover tea*
- 1/2 cup shredded green cabbage
- 1 Tbsp (more or less) good quality soy sauce
- Pinch freshly-grated black pepper
- Drop of sesame oil
1) *Any tea works great, but I find that a blended tea such as green tea with roasted brown rice – commercially know as Popcorn Tea – is exceptionally good for the base of this soup. You can make your own blend, as I do by toasting a handful of brown rice in a heavy cast-iron skillet until slightly popped and golden, and then allowing it to cool before mixing with a handful of loose green tea leaves. This gives the ‘cup of soup’ a rich, toasty rice flavour.
2) Pour steeped tea into small saucepan, add cabbage, and simmer until cabbage is tender (not more than a few minutes). Add soy sauce to suit taste. Season with black pepper and add a drop of sesame oil. An instant cooking noodle such as thin Somen noodles can be added to the pot for an extra boost of energy. Serve in a mug. This is a very economical homemade soup to take the place of store-bought ‘cup of soups,’ which I find are usually too salty.
Double-Good Jasmine Brown Rice
This delightfully fragrant rice is sure to please. Serve it with less spicy dishes such as poached or steamed fish, seafood, and poultry to allow the flowery flavour to shine through.
- 2 cups water
- 2 Tbsp loose jasmine tea
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1-1/4 cups jasmine brown rice
1) In saucepan, bring water to a boil.
2) Add tea, cover, and steep about 5 minutes.
3) Strain and press well before discarding the spent leaves.
4) Return tea to pan, add salt, and bring to a boil.
5) Add rice, reduce heat to low, cover tightly, and cook until tea is absorbed and rice is tender (about 30 minutes).
6) Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.
- 1 cup leftover tea of choice
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 Tbsp virgin olive oil
- 2 chopped tomatoes
- 1 minced onion
- 1 diced green pepper
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- salt and pepper to taste
1) Put 1 cup leftover tea of choice into a bowl and add ¼ cup honey, 1 Tbsp virgin olive oil, 2 chopped tomatoes, 1 minced onion, 1 diced green pepper, 2 cloves minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.
2) In an oiled baking dish, place 4 servings of organic chicken breast or other desired portions.
3) Pour tea mixture over top and bake until chicken is tender. Serve over rice or noodles. (Serves 4.)
Grandma’s Old-Fashioned Bram Brack
Bram Brack is a delicious Irish sweet loaf that is economical to make and, when wrapped in coloured cellophane and tucked into a basket along with a jar of homemade fruit spread and a box of tea, also makes a delightful gift. Grandma used dried wild blueberries in her recipe, but currants or raisins are also fine. Even though she used regular wheat flours in her baking recipes, I have adapted this recipe to use gluten-free flour, which works equally well. You can use your favourite commercial blend or homemade mixture of gluten-free flour or a gluten-free baking mix, if desired.
- 1-3/4 cups scalding black tea
- 2 cups currants or raisins (or a mixture)
- 1/4 cup mixed candied peel (candied citron)
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup chopped, dried cherries
- 3/4 cup honey
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Pinch to taste of ground nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves
- 3 (or more) cups gluten-free flour
1) Put dried fruit in a bowl, pour tea over top, and cover with a plate.
2) Soak for several hours or overnight.
3) Mix in honey and egg.
4) Mix baking soda and spices into flour and gently fold into wet ingredients until just blended.
5) Depending on the type of flour mixture you are using, you may need to increase the measure a little to make the batter stiff enough. Do not overbeat, as you do not want to eliminate the gasses from the flour (gluten-free flour does not have as much rising power as traditional wheat flour).
6) Pour into non-stick or greased pans of desired size and bake at 350 F for 1 to 2 hours, depending on size of pans or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Holiday Fruit Muffins
These muffins are always better the second or even third day, but they never last that long unless the batch is doubled! Nice to have on hand as a quick morning bite when the house is full of company. Set these mouth-watering muffins out with a pot of tea and a bowl of fruit spread and they’ll take the edge off morning hunger. This makes one to three dozen muffins, depending on the size of tins. These are rich, so I like to bake a portion of the batter in small muffin tins for pint-size nibblers, and the rest in medium-sized tins for larger appetites.
- 1/2 cup currants or raisins
- 1/2 cup chopped, dried apricots
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- Grated zest of an orange (juice and pulp reserved)
- 1 cup scalding tea (any type works well, especially fragrant tea such as jasmine)
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 2 (or more) cups gluten-free flour or baking mix
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Ground cinnamon to taste
1) Put dried fruit and zest in a bowl, pour tea over top, and cover with a plate.
2) Let set until cool, then blend in orange juice and pulp, honey, oil, and egg.
3) Mix dry ingredients and gently fold into wet ingredients, adding a little more flour if needed to make proper consistency for muffin batter.
4) Fill non-stick or greased muffin tins 3/4 full and bake at 400 F for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size of tins or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean.
Festive Tea-Infused Fruit Bowl
Here’s a refreshing dessert that ends a heavy holiday meal in grand style. You can use the amount of fruit you desire and add or omit anything you wish. Serve in tall-stemmed glasses with long spoons. Very nice for adults when apricot, cherry, or other sweet fruit brandy is swirled into the juiced-up tea, making this a dessert and after-dinner cocktail in one! Kids can have a dollop of whipped cream, ice cream, or yogurt on top, if desired. Serves a crowd.
- 2 cups scalding white, yellow, or green tea
- Honey to sweeten
- 1 teaspoon finely-grated lemon zest, plus juice of the lemon
- Small melon balls (honeydew, watermelon, cantaloupe, or a mixture for appealing colours)
- Seedless grapes
- Frozen blueberries
- Fresh or frozen whole strawberries
- Frozen gooseberries (Use a substitute berry such as raspberries, if desired)
- Poached or canned peach wedges
- Mandarin or tangerine sections
1) Pour boiling tea into a bowl and sweeten to suit taste with honey.
2) Add lemon zest and juice and stir well.
3) Submerge fruit into the tea, cover, and soak in fridge for several hours (the longer the better) turning occasionally so all fruit is equally soaked.
Cheesy Tea-Dressed Greens
This is a delicious way to serve greens – whether you use wild picks such as dandelions, stinging nettles, or lamb’s quarters or garden fare like spinach, Swiss chard, or beet tops. Serves 4 to 6.Heat the oil in a wok and sauté garlic until soft.
- 1 Tbsp loose black or other tea leaves
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 2 pounds washed greens of choice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup soft cheese (cream cheese, brie, goat, or other soft cheese)
- 2 Tbsp crumbled blue cheese
- 1/4 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
1) In small cast-iron skillet, toast tea leaves, shaking pan constantly, for 2 minutes, being careful not to burn.
2) Add boiling water, cover, and steep for 5 minutes.
3) Strain and press well to extract all the tea before discarding the leaves.
4) Heat the oil in a wok and sauté garlic until soft.
5) Add tea and greens. Cook until greens are wilted.
6) Season with salt and pepper and fold in cheeses.
7) Cover and allow steam to melt the cheese before transferring to serving dish.
8) Serve as a side dish or turn it into the full meal deal by folding in 2 cups cooked whole wheat pasta bows or penne and topping with sliced cherry tomatoes and a shake of additional Parmesan.
Japanese Prawn Tea Soup
In Japan, a similar soup to this one is known as Chazuke or Ochzuke, and it calls for grilled salmon. My version calls for cooked prawns, and it is as appealing to the eye as it is to the appetite. But try it with salmon and other seafood, too, or cubed tofu in place of fish or seafood. Serves 4 as a starter soup, larger bowls can be used when serving as the main course, in which case it serves 2.
1 cup leftover cooked long grain brown or other rice of choice (I often cook a double or triple batch of rice when making another dish in order to ensure leftovers for using in this satisfying soup recipe. Cooked rice saves up to a week in a covered container in the fridge and even longer when frozen in zip-lock bags. I freeze it in needed measures for soup making. To reheat the rice, drop the bag into boiling water and steam until rice is hot or reheat in the microwave or rice steamer.
- 1 Tbsp sesame oil
- 2 Tbsp toasted seaweed flakes, cut into small pieces using scissors
- 1 cup cooked prawns (or shrimp)
- Squirt of prepared wasabi
- Celery salt and freshly-grated black pepper to taste
- 2 dried shiitake mushrooms, ground to powder (or broken into very tiny pieces for chewy effect)
- 2 to 3 cups scalding, freshly-brewed green tea (Japanese sencha is a tasty pick for this recipe)
- Minced green onions or chives
1) Divide rice into four Asian-style soup bowls.
2) Drizzle 1/4 teaspoon of sesame oil over top of the rice.
3) Sprinkle seaweed flakes into each bowl.
4) Divide prawns into the bowls, dot with a squirt of wasabi, season, and sprinkle with shiitake.
5) Cover with boiling tea.
6) Garnish with minced green onions and serve.
7) For variety, you can add steamed vegetables, bamboo shoots, toasted sesame seeds, or anything else your heart desires to the bowl.
8) For a change of pace, use leftover cooked noodles such as soba or somen in place of the rice – kids love it with noodles!
Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.