23 February 2010

Winter Picnic

February hardly seems the time for a cup of tea outside. But on a brilliantly sunny afternoon in Central Park, what could be better? I've had enough of huddling inside this winter, and the city has been so softened by luscious blankets of snow that an alfresco cup was irresistible.

So the other morning, right after I woke up, I made chai, poured it in a thermos, and thought about what else to take along.

Something durable and portable would be required (especially if you end up on a little two-hour detour through sales racks at Saks positively vomiting bargains, on your way up 5th Avenue).

The solution: a classic granola bar. Whether hiking or hopping on the subway, these bars- adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, the lovely Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking- are ideal to take along.

They're chewy, gingery, not too sweet, and exponentially better than any packaged granola bar. And no matter where you end up trekking, the oats and nuts will keep you steady- and counteract the effects of drinking 18 cups of chai (or carrying 18 shopping bags).

Ginger Granola Bars
Makes: 16 to 24 bars.

1 tablespoon almond oil
1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/4 cups chopped toasted almonds, walnuts or sunflower seeds (or a combination)
1/2 cup oat bran
1 1/2 cups unsweetened crisp brown rice cereal
1 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup brown rice syrup
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)

1. Grease a 10x12-inch pan with the oil. In large bowl, mix together oats, nuts, oat bran, cereal, cranberries and ginger.

2. In small saucepan, combine brown rice syrup, sugar, vanilla, salt and lemon zest. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens slightly, about 4 minutes. Pour over oat mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

3. Spread into prepared pan and let cool to room temperature; the bars can be refrigerated for longer storage. Cut into desired serving sizes.

Even if all you can manage is a takeout cup, a snowsuit and a five-minute sit on a sunny bench, have some tea outside, soon. It's worth it.

06 February 2010

Ichigo, Ichie: One Time, One Meeting

I recently attended my first chanoyu, or traditional Japanese tea ceremony, at the transcendent East Village teahouse Cha-An (230 E 9th St.). It was sublime, but I've struggled greatly with how to best describe it.

After a few days, however, it's struck me: that's completely missing the point. Chanoyu is, at its essence, about letting go of the outside world and absorbing the moment. It's not about perfection or permanence: in fact, the two basic concepts, as established by the 1500s tea master Takeno Joo are wabi-sabi, or the singular beauty in imperfection, and ichigo ichie, a celebration of the unique and ephemeral nature of every encounter.

The only way to understand chanoyu is to experience it. Yes, I realize that sounds like some pseudo-yoga (or -Yoda) platitude, but it's true. Keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony was developed and formalized centuries ago by Zen Buddhist monks, so it can get away with concepts that may sound ridiculously New Agey to modern ears.

The dichotomies are enough to make your head spin: The rituals of the tea master are so choreographed and simple, yet these ancient motions take decades to master; the setting is so minimal, yet the beauty it exemplifies is more stunning than the world's most opulent ballroom. But as soon as you leave the outside world behind, as you've implicitly done with your first, unshod, whispering steps on the tatami mat, and begin to focus on your immediate senses, all those thoughts fall away.

Your eyes adjust to the muted, paper-screened light and you begin to feel the heat of the small, intimate space rise. The only sounds are of the water softly bubbling in the cast-iron kettle, the steady stream pouring from the bamboo ladle into the bowl, and then the precise and insistent whisking of the matcha into a silky froth. You feel the texture of the clay as you cradle the bowl, and the weight of the emerald-green liquid inside; then finally, the warm touch of the tea on your lips before its deep, heady, vegetal flavor fills your mouth.

It's not doing the experience justice, but that's all I can write. You just need to go.

Cha-An performs a 30 minute tea ceremony for two to four people Sundays, by reservation only (212.228.8030; $15 per person, cash only).