25 August 2008

Pour Me a Cup of That Green Tea Yogurt

I remember the first time I tasted yogurt. I was about 15 years years old, sitting on my parent's bed, watching TV (most likely Gumby or Punky Brewster, and yes, I was far too old to be watching either).

My mom, the only thing close to an experimental eater in the house, had brought home a lemon yogurt for me. I was probably faking a sore throat for attention; I certainly would never have requested that a cup of that foreign, viscous substance. I had to keep up the act, though, so I tilted my nose back as far as possible and pulled off the lid. I dipped a spoon in as timidly as I would a toe in the Atlantic Ocean on the first swimmable day in June, and touched just the very tip of my tongue to that trembling yellow drop.

And I liked it. I had to get my mind over the gelatinous mouth-feel, and it took me about 45 minutes to get through the container (I was probably on to The Cosby Show at that point), but I was hooked.

So when I found green tea yogurt ($.99) while waiting in a serpentine line at Manhattan's only and perpetually crowded Trader Joe's, I elbowed the smelly NYU students out of my way and pounced on it.

It's worth getting in a fight for: it's smooth, creamy and the natural tartness of the yogurt blends delightfully with the clean flavor of the matcha.

The only problem is that it's a measly 5.3 ounces. And it only comes in lowfat. Come on, Joe.

But paired with a hot bowl of straight-up matcha for breakfast, it may render you unstoppable in the morning.

22 August 2008

Iced Chocolate Chai

Or, how to find ice-cold redemption in a cup, no matter what time of day.

I made this tea-based granita to crown a late summer, gluten-free dinner for a incredible jewelry designer last night, but discovered this morning that it makes for a killer breakfast.

Look, if a chocolate croissant can count as a morning meal, then this has to- and it's even got tea in it. It's icy and creamy, sweet and spicy; what else do you need to wake you up on an August morning?

The original recipe, from the delightful Cooking With Tea, had the tea steeped with everything else for about 15 mintes. I wanted to avoid any bitterness from overbrewing, however, so I just added it after all the spices, chocolate and milk had simmered together.

Iced Chocolate Chai

In a large saucepan, mix together 4 cups milk; 1/3 cup granulated sugar; 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped; 6 cardamom pods, crushed; 2 whole cinnamon sticks; 4 allspice berries, crushed; and 1 vanilla bean, slit lengthwise or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons Cameroon or Darjeeling tea; let sit 10 minutes.

Strain into a shallow baking dish, cover and freeze for at least 4 hours. Break up chunks with a fork, and serve ice-cold.

It's hard to have a bad day when the first thing you put in your mouth is chocolate. Just try it and see.

21 August 2008

Tranquility in Just Two Cups

The something new to go along with my blueberry pie:

Black Beauty, another flowering tea from Numi, which consists of black gold-tipped leaves tied into a spirelike bundle.

As the little pyramid opened, slowly flavoring a pale golden, medium-bodied brew, a faint rose fragrance hovered above. The taste, gentle for a black tea, didn't overpower the naturally sweet fruitiness of the pie, and I found it a lovely pairing.

However, with pie this outstanding, tea made out of rotten lettuce leaves and steeped in garbage juice would probably taste pretty good.

Watching it the tea open on its second brew, I was listening to program on my favorite local radio station the other day, all about literature on walking: the meditative state taking a walk can bring, along with a discovery of tranquility, composure and satisfaction in the present moment. It struck me that's precisely what happens when you watch tea brew.

Walking or making the perfect cup of tea may seem unexciting, but they both force you to slow down and exist solely in the moment.

Both require some patience, too, to get the most out of them, but that's never a bad quality to cultivate. It's all too easy to rush through everything in the day, both pleasant and unpleasant.

20 August 2008

Summer Blues

I realized something shocking this morning.

I have a flip-flop tan on the tops of my feet.

That means it's been an outdoors summer- the first I've had since high school, when the only rule, laid out by my mother, was having to get dressed before noon (but a bikini counted, thank God).

That also means that I'm getting melancholy over the fall feel in the air. It's refreshing, of course, but there's a part of me that's having trouble letting summer go.

Over the past few months, I've set aside my usually year-round steaming cups and rediscovered the beauty of cold tea- brewed over ice, in the refrigerator, flavored with vibrant summer herbs and spices. I know I can make it at any time, but iced tea is just not the same after August.

I'm not relinquishing my grasp on the season just yet: As long as monarch butterflies are accompanying me up concrete subway steps and cicadas are serenading me to sleep, blueberry pie will be made.

Its bright, just-sweet-enough taste is somehow the pinnacle of summer, even in this gray, towering city, even as the sun's warmth off the pavement is quickly fading.

Blueberry Pie
Makes: 8 servings.

1 double-crust pie dough (pate brisee), chilled, separated into two equal-sized disks
5 cups blueberries, washed
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
3-4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1. Roll out one half of pie crust to fit in 9-inch pie dish; gently drape in dish, not stretching edges, and form a rim.

2. Roll remaining half into 9-inch circle and cut vent holes or decorative shapes with cookie cutters, if desired. Press cut dough shapes next to cut-outs, and slide onto a cookie sheet. Refrigerate both halves for at least 30 minutes.

3. Place blueberries in medium-sized bowl and mix with sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and zest and cinnamon. Let mixture sit for 15 minutes.

4. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pour blueberry mixture into pie crust and dot with butter pieces. Cover with top crust, tucking edges under rim and fluting decoratively.

5. Bake pie for 30 minutes, then slip a baking sheet underneath the dish. Lower temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 25 to 35 minutes more, until thick juices are bubbling up.

6. Let pie cool for several hours before slicing, or refrigerate overnight and eat for every meal until it's gone.

I had a slice for breakfast and paired it with a new tea- and not even iced, as it was 61 degrees this morning. Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you what it was.

15 August 2008

Flowers, On and On

They may seem a little gimmicky, but flowering teas are more than just a pretty face in your cup.

Caressed by the warmth of the water, these teas slowly spin and unfurl, revealing the anemonelike arms of individual tea leaves that gently embrace a flower tied in the middle. It's like getting to watch spring's week-long progression of a firm, pale-green bud burgeon into a vibrant spring blossom in the space of a few minutes.

And you have a cup of tea to drink after the show.

Plus, flowering teas were verboten during the Cultural Revolution in China due to their frivolity, furthering my theory that anything banned by the Chinese government is something I will find thoroughly enjoyable (e.g., Internet porn and human rights).

The one I had this morning, the delicate Flower Jewel from Numi, consists of Silver Needle white tea encasing a brilliant pink amaranth blossom. With their subtly sweet flavor and fragrance, white teas are an ideal host to flowers- roses, lotus, chrysanthemum and gardenia are some of the most often used- but green and black teas can be just as marvelous with the right floral match.

Like other loose-leaf teas, flowering teas can be brewed a few times; in fact, they tend to open up more in subsequent cups.

Of course, the taste of flowering teas is only as good as the tea enclosing the bloom. But maybe it's the potential that makes them so appealing; these teas come in such tight, closed little balls that you'd never guess how lushly they will blossom.

13 August 2008

The Best Deal in Manhattan

What do you picture when you hear "unlimited refills"?

I think of giant plastic cups that contain enough artificially colored and flavored liquids to put a dialysis machine to shame, playing perfectly into the American culinary concept of more is more, and making you forget the food you're about to put in your mouth is barely edible.

I don't think of three-Michelin-starred French restaurants, with food and service so extraordinary that sometimes all you can do is close your eyes and revel in the gustatory heaven.

But I do now, after an elegant lunch at Jean-Georges (1 Central Park West). As if $28 for two courses wasn't enough of a deal, guess what I discovered: unlimited, house-brewed iced tea can be had here for $5.

Served with lemon, a mint leaf and an accompanying carafe of simple syrup (the proper way to sweeten cold tea), this classic black iced tea put all the cups I've tasted recently in Brooklyn to shame.

So it's twice the price of a regular iced tea in the city. But if you have just two glasses, you're ahead of the game. And I'd like to point out that it's poured attentively from a silver pitcher, not out of a hissing plastic spigot: Presentation really does matter.

I sucked down glass after glass, from the amuse bouche (pictured above) through my two courses- heirloom watermelon gazpacho, then steamed halibut in a delicate lemongrass sauce, topped with honshimeji mushrooms (no, I'd never heard of them before either)- and throughout the post-dessert tray of mini macaroons, homemade marshmallows and truffles (the peanut butter and jelly-filled is not to be missed).

Four icy glasses to the wind, I stumbled in the sunshine in Central Park on shaky legs, caffeine coursing through my veins. But it was well worth it.

12 August 2008

Pi Lo Chun, You Had Me at Ni Hao

Remember that lonely little package of Pi Lo Chun that has been languishing in my refrigerator since last month's tea spree? I didn't either, until this morning.

This green tea, also referred to as Green Snail due to the characteristic swirl and small tail of the leaves, is a specialty of the Jiangsu province, on the east coast of China.

When brewed, however, these snails are suddenly 16 years old and headed off to their first high-school dance: The tiny spirals unfurl coyly, giving off a soft, sweet aroma that is matched by the tea's pale golden color.

But the taste is a surprise: once the dance gets going, you realize these teenagers aren't as innocent as they appeared when Mom and Dad cooed over them before they left the house. This tea is bold, assertive, and somehow already knows all the right moves on the floor.

My first cup was a bit too astringent- a quality that this tea is praised for- but on a shorter second brew and slightly cooler water (about 2 minutes at 180 degrees), the edge was blunted and that classic, earthy, strong Chinese-green flavor came through.

Pi Lo Chun isn't the type of green tea I usually go for, but it was a perfect choice to wake me up on this first fall-feeling morning and savor, warm, over two postcards. When's the last time that happened?

11 August 2008

Why the Price of Tea in China Matters

I rarely delve into the economics of tea (thanks to a mysterious number-induced nausea), but I couldn't resist after finding a recent paper by Nancy Qian, a professor of economics at Brown University, entitled "Missing Women and the Price of Tea in China: The Effect of Sex-Specific Earnings on Sex Imbalance."

There has been an ongoing debate (see this 2005 article and a more recent rebuttal) since the coining of the term "missing women," which refers to a significantly male-skewed sex ratio through selective abortion and abandonment of females, especially in places like China, India and Sri Lanka where the cultural preference is for male children.
Many Asian populations are characterized by severe male-biased sex imbalances. For example, whereas 50.1% of the current populations in western European countries are female, only 48.4% are female in India and China. (Qian)
That discrepancy may not seem large, but consider the size of these populations: It translates into 44 million missing women in China in 1990, when the data were first published.

Qian makes the case that economics can directly affect this imbalance, however, and through a surprising source: tea. China is the world's largest producer of tea, churning out 835 metric tons in 2004.

Because of the low height of tea bushes there (about 2 1/2 feet), Chinese women have a distinct, natural advantage over the usually taller men in harvesting the delicate leaves.

If the price of tea rises, then, women's value economically stands to as well. And as tea is such a massive crop in China, this could start to equalize the country's male-skewed sex ratio.
Regarding relative survival rates for girls, increasing the price of tea can operate through [several] channels. First, it can increase the relative desirability of having a girl by increasing parents’ perceptions of daughters’ future earnings relative to that of sons. Second, the increase in total household income can increase the relative desirability of girls if for some reason daughters are luxury goods relative to sons. (Qian)
Paying more for your morning cup of tea, therefore, could be affecting far more than your wallet, if it does mean an increased economic value for women. According to Qian's research, an increase in tea's value boosts female survival rates as well as educational attainment in China.

Think about that over your next cup of Dragonwell.

09 August 2008

My Ice Cream's Greener Than Yours

I didn't want to go back.

I really didn't want to.

But I'd peeked into Blue Marble (420 Atlantic Ave.) a few times this summer, looking for iced tea, and even sampled some cones at a street fair in Brooklyn. Its green tea flavor, however, had proved elusive until today.

Admittedly, I hadn't been trying too hard to track it down. Blue Marble is a "green" ice-cream company, and not shy about touting that. While I agree with those principles, the overall feel of the shop and its customers are almost unbearably ecotistical.

And how is it possible to justify paying over $3.50 for one- one- single scoop of ice cream?

Once it's melting on my greedy tongue, I don't really care that it's organic, locally sourced and carbon-negative, or that the napkins clutching the cone are biodegradable.

But as you can see, this green tea ice cream is made with matcha from Uji, Japan, my most favorite tea terroir in the world. And I do have a responsibility to my audience.

So I may not be proud of myself, but I did it: I paid $7.59 for two cones, in fact. And unfortunately, it was really, really good. The matcha's beautifully strong, vegetal flavor positively sang with the creamy, just-sweet-enough base. I'm going to have to go back.

But please, keep the fair-trade, biodynamic sticky buns (I wish I was kidding) talk down while I slink in to get my fix. Otherwise I might not be able to go through with it.

08 August 2008

Pucker Up, Buttercups: Cranberry Iced Tea

Inspired by the best iced tea I've tasted so far this summer, I of course had to try to replicate it at home.

That way, I never have to leave my apartment.

Cranberry Iced Tea

Set 6 tablespoons English breakfast or orange pekoe tea in 4 cups of water in the refrigerator overnight, or at least 10 hours.

Remove tea and stir in 1 cup unsweetened cranberry juice and 4-5 tablespoons honey, or to taste. Serve over ice.

This tea is quite strong and tart; the antioxidants are palpable with every sip. It's far from that artificial, this-must-be-bad-for-my-kidneys taste I've encountered in other fruit teas, both fresh and bottled, so it's worth a try even if you usually like your tea unadorned.

If you're not enamored of straight-up cranberry, you could replace it with an equal amount of sweetened, blended cranberry juice, and leave out the honey. Either way, I'd imagine this hot would also fit right in at a winter holiday party- and then, you could float a few in-season cranberries on top for a garnish.

And for all the stylists out there, the '70s-era Jena glass cup and saucer were a recent gift, and that of the absolute best kind: completely spontaneous and unnecessary.

I admired them while having a cup of tea in a friend's home, and they were promptly packed up for me to take back to the city when I left. I treasure little mementos like that, especially when they have a story behind them.

07 August 2008

Yes, Good Tea Does Exist in New York

Does the universe seek balance, not entropy?

After bashing so much prepared tea, I found two places this past weekend that are actually worth the price of a cup.

The first was from the Hampton Chutney Company (68 Prince St.), one of those New York places I love to hate.

Despite the fact that this place turns out probably the closest thing to a real dosa (basically a giant crepe, South Indian style) in Manhattan, it's ruined by the ridiculously incongruous fillings, like sun-dried tomatoes and smoked turkey; the tight-fisted, dime-sized portions of its namesake chutney; and its location, smack in the middle of the intolerable preening crowds of SoHo. The kicker? The most uncomfortable stools and tiniest counters imaginable (and no bathroom, of course), which makes navigating your way through a two-foot-plus, fingers-only dosa very tricky. Namaste, my ass.

Imagine my skepticism, then, when I came in out of the pouring rain on Saturday, feet drenched, to sit while my guests had lunch. I figured it was time to give the place another try, so while they happily crunched their way through a few dosas, I took a deep breath and ordered a chai tea ($2.45) to warm up.

And it wasn't bad at all. Soothing, a bit creamy and not overly sweet; my only complaint would be in the timidity of the spices. Still, considering some of the other chai teas I've tasted, this was far from requiring a spit-take.

Hampton Chutney Company, you still annoy me to no end, but I will grace you with my presence on more rainy days when I've forgotten my umbrella.

It wouldn't be a true city summer day without a complete range of sensory input, from the weather to the food. As the sun battled its way out and the afternoon turned positively balmy, we ended up in Hell's Kitchen. And on a quiet side street, listening to the wind blow through the leaves, across from a real live nunnery, I found it: the iced tea I've been looking for, along with a few other things I didn't even know I was.

Cafe Forant (449 W 51st St.), where have you been?

This charming, airy little place has only been open for a year and a half, so I guess that's some excuse. But after just one gulp of the homemade cranberry iced tea ($2) and bite of the outstanding tarte tatin ($5.95), you'll be etching it into your culinary memory.

In my many tastings this summer, fruited iced teas have been the most difficult type to get right, and the lovely ladies who run this cafe absolutely nail it. The sour hit of cranberry and the strength of the black tea base dance together like an old couple at their 50th wedding anniversary, both comfortably and perfectly in step with each other.

I wasn't surprised to hear that the owners are in the process of getting this brew bottled. I just hope that works out, because it's a bit of a haul from Brooklyn just for an iced tea. It's worth it, though.

And even though it had me hitting every bathroom in Midtown for the rest of the day, I couldn't resist- all my companions' glasses of lavender lemonade ($2) just looked too good. So I ended up with one too, and I didn't regret one sweetly tart, perfectly fragrant sip.

It's important to have faith. Otherwise, it can never be rewarded.

06 August 2008

Tea and Blueberry Muffins, Revisited

I've spent much of this past week entertaining, and being entertained by, my oldest and dearest friends. My favorite part, aside from exploring the city with fresh eyes, is what to serve them with tea for breakfast.

I wrote an article on domestic olive oils about a year ago, and while doing the research, came across many recipes using it in baking in place of butter. While there's no danger of the bottle replacing the creamy, pale-golden sticks in my fridge, my first experiment with it is reminding me of olive oil's range.

Like tea, olive oil can certainly be appreciated on its own, and different types' terroir produces surprisingly varied tastes. And these qualities can be appreciated in a new way when you bake with it.

These lemony, cornmeal-studded, surprisingly rich olive-oil muffins were the ideal summery foil to some iced Dragonwell, at least according to my guests.

Lemon Blueberry Muffins
Makes: 12 muffins.

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 scant cup milk
1/2 cup mild olive oil (I used Robbins Family Farm)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Rind of one lemon, finely grated
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup medium or coarse cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup blueberries, washed

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners.

2. In measuring cup, mix lemon juice into milk and let sit 10 minutes. In medium-sized bowl, stir together oil, sugar, lemon rind and egg.

3. In small bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking soda and salt. Stir in blueberries.

4. Stir milk into oil mixture. Pour dry ingredients into oil mixture and mix gently until just blended (some lumps may remain). Pour batter into prepared cups.

5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in muffin comes out clean. Let cool in pan on rack for five minutes; turn out onto rack to cool completely.

Tea and blueberry muffins may sound a bit conventional for breakfast, but with ingredients like these, no one will be complaining- their mouths will be too full.