Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cup of tea, cup o' soup

Behold the power of Twitter. Seems every chipper local newscaster is in my face every day now asking, "So what is Twitter?" We've been tweeting for a while now (well, we're just getting started with @teasquaredblog), and while I enjoy the quick-and-dirty ease of this particular means of communication, I can't help but chuckle at the various ways people try to cram their full-sized lives into Twitter's bite-sized bits. (Of course, my favorite use of Twitter is The Mime. Now that's online performance art!)

Case in point: the Twitter cookbook, in which a deranged chef attempts to boil down — and heavily abbreviate — recipes to fit into 140-character tweets. Example:
"Chocolate Cupcakes: cream4T buttr/8T sug; +egg. Sift1/8t soda&salt/6T flour/4T cocoa/.25t bkgpdr. Mix all+4T milk; fill6cups. 20m@375F/190C."
Hey, if it gets people cooking who would otherwise just nuke another cup of Ramen, I toast their efforts.

I only became aware of this madness while searching for some recipes today; I stumbled across one on the Twitter cookbook for Darjeeling soup. The tweet:
"Darjeeling Soup: fry leek&onion/T butter. Simmer15m+2c cauliflr/1tater&celery/4c Darj tea/s+p/bay. Rmv bay; puree+6T milk. Srv w nutmeg&pep."
Here's my translation:
  1. Chop 1 medium onion and 1 medium leek. Sautee in 1 Tbsp. butter.
  2. Add 4 cups Darjeeling tea, plus 2 cups chopped cauliflower, 1 cup chopped potato (I'd say red here), 1/2 cup chopped celery, 1 bay leaf, and salt & pepper to taste. Simmer 15 minutes over medium heat.
  3. Remove the bay leaf. Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor (letting the steam escape!) with a total of 6 Tbsps. milk.
  4. Serve the pureed mixture with nutmeg and pepper.
Sounds delish to me — something to file away for next fall!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fear not, we love the herb

Tea is tea, even though some tea is not tea.

We here at teasquared promise never to be snobby about herbal tea. Lovers of the non-tea teas may have experienced this (as we have) from hardcore enthusiasts of camellia sinensis — if it doesn't come from the tea bush, it's not "real" tea. Technically, true, of course, but tea of all things should not instill a caste system. Herbal infusions are enjoyed for many of the same reasons as tea, and the wider array of flavors and options in herbal tea has no doubt expanded the regular tea market, probably even kept it on its toes. I certainly love my jar of mint leaves, I really love rooibos (which, again, despite being called "red tea" is not from the camellia genus, either), I grow lemon balm in my garden expressly for the purpose of making tea with it, and there have been some days when a calming cup of chamomile has pretty much saved my life. Or the life of my work colleagues.

Just as thought after reading a recent article in a British marketing magazine called, wait for it, Marketing. It's just a short report about herbal tea demographics in England, where the real stuff rules. "Tea is entrenched in the British lifestyle, but herbal and speciality variants are carving out a health-based niche of their own," the report claims, noting that 83 percent of all adults in England drink tea, more than half of them several times a day. Their numbers for herbals are these: "Herbal tea drinkers tend to be women ... and from the 45- to 50-year-old age group (followed by 25- to 34-year-olds) according to TGI. Of British men, 15% drink herbal tea, compared with 27% of women. Herbal teas usually form a part of consumers' tea-drinking repertoire, rather than replacing black tea entirely."

What about you? Do you drink herbals? When and why?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring flush: A tea moment

Everything's freshened after last night's rain, thunder and lightning, and the warm breezes are whispering sweet nothings of spring. Everyone's out and about — tourist boats are back on the Chicago River stuffed with gawkers, pairs of geese are strolling Wolf Point with their fluffy new babies, the urban parks are alive with natives and newcomers and newbies playing hooky. I had time to kill this evening, after bailing from work and before meeting a friend to hear Neko Case's leather-lunged voice fill every cranny of the Chicago Theater. I could've ducked inside somewhere for a cocktail, but how could I spurn such a newly comely Mother Nature? I snatched a green tea from Argo and strolled through the crowds in Millennium Park, hiking over the curvy bridge over rush-hour choked Columbus Drive to the formal landscape designs, tennis courts and plazas on the other side. This is a tea moment. Sitting in on a park bench, watching the landscape come alive for the who-knows-how-manyth time. Fragrant dogwood blossoms fluttering on the breeze. Teenage boys slapping by in flip-flops or rolling by on skateboards. Tulips humbly bowing in their beds. Tourists on Segways, craning their necks at the city skyline, the contrast of which deepens minute by minute as the sun slips away. A duck — its plump head, neck, body and tail in a perfect straight line — flies at human-head height across the park. Stop, look, listen — and sip.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where in the world is Denise?

Postcard came in the mail from an old friend, Denise. She travels a lot, and somehow many years ago she got into the habit of sending postcards from her business trips and off-the-cuff whims. Some days I'm greeted with a quick line from south Texas, other days I get dog-eared cards from Calcutta (where she sends me fabulous Darjeeling from Dolly's Tea Shop!). Today's was mailed over the weekend, from Boston: "I had free time, so I joined the TEA party (down w/ big govt!). I even poured out my tea. But not on purpose — I tripped and fell down!"

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NU ceremony showcases old art

Aw shucks: missed a tea event practically in my own back yard. The Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program up at Northwestern University sponsored a tea ceremony on Sunday, demonstrating the Japanese art and offering tastings of maccha tea.

From the student paper:

Visiting professor Shozo Sato hosted the event to celebrate the arrival of spring and make the traditional tea ceremony accessible to Western audiences who do not have access to traditional tea houses, said Sato. Sato, a Zen arts master, has received the highest honor in Japanese art from the emperor of Japan.

About 75 Northwestern students and community members attended the two-hour event, sponsored by the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program, to sample what Sato called the "espresso of green teas."

Did you go? Do tell!

Tea vodka: And the winner is ... dessert!

Two days in, and the tea infusions were ready for a full taste test. Late Sunday, the color was just coming on in each jar, and the contents were still straight vodka. Monday, the flavors were there, but the vodka was still prevalent. Tonight, the tea sprang to life in each spoon. Worried about bitterness getting the best of me (as I am in life and work every day ...), I pulled ’em, filtered ’em (two passes with a cheesecloth) and poured three cordials ...

Here are the tasting results:

The green (Japanese Kabusecha) was sprightly. Lots of tea in the nose, and a ton of distinct, fresh green tea flavor in the finish, with a persistent aftertaste. In between, in the mouth, mostly vodka and sugar. Third and fourth tastes later grew on me some more, though the astringency grew a little, too. Daniel — the poor spouse roped into the tasting (and someone who claims not to like the taste of tea one bit) — said, "I don't hate it." That, folks, is a triumph.

The black (Chinese Keemun) was a dud. No tea smell, no tea taste, no tea aftertaste. Just alcohol and sugar. The tea didn't come through at all, so I probably should have let this steep much longer. Though I hesitate, because the one thing that did scream through on the first taste was a pile of tannins. Difficult, disappointing.

The winner was the Chocolate Mint Truffle (opened Mighty Leaf bags). In the beginning, a delicious, rich chocolatey odor, with some muscle. In the mouth, a light sweetness and a fluorescence of mint around the edges. Then the chocolate settles in with the sweetness. It's a lovely marriage, and the lingering, velvety chocolate aftertatse is the honeymoon. Daniel kept drinking this one. We'll definitely add this to the regular stable.

Meanwhile, the big batch of limoncello calmly goes about its business, awaiting a mid-May unveiling, like a time-bomb set to explode with ... spring!

Lady Gaga rocks the tea party look

(Photo source: Celebuzz)

If you're tuned into pop music at all at present, you've probably encountered the work of the latest flashy flash-in-the-pan pop tart, Lady Gaga ("Just Dance," "Poker Face"). Already well known for some pretty outlandish outfits, m'Lady was rocking the above look (more photos here) yesterday in London. She's taken to carrying that flowered teacup most places — it's a signature prop now apparently. Even with punk-purple hair here, she brandishes the tea cup.

Signs of civilitea are now badges of rebellion? We're definitely through the looking glass now.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Think she was making gunpowder tea?

We raise or teacups this evening to Tammy Sexton, a hardy woman in Birmingham, Ala., who a few days ago was shot in the head by her husband — and yet still managed to go to the kitchen, make herself some tea and even offer a cuppa to the astonished arriving deputy.

The Associated Press reported that Sexton, 47, was in bed when husband Donald Ray — who'd recently been hunted by the police — walked in, shot her, then went to the back porch and shot himself. He died quickly. Tammy's bullet, however, passed relatively safely through her forehead, middle brain and out the back, leaving her merely dazed and slightly confused. Apparently she's going to make a full recovery.

Here's the kicker:

A deputy was greeted by the woman when he arrived minutes after she was shot with the slug from a .380-caliber handgun. "When the officer got there she said, 'What's going on?' She was holding a rag on her head and talking. She was conscious, but she was confused about what had happened," he said. "She had made herself some tea and offered the officer something to drink."

Attagirl, Tammy! Civilitea reigns to the bitter end. And this is great news: drink tea, become bulletproof. Tonight on "Heroes," a new character called Steep ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tea vodka: You're soaking in it

So I like dunking things into liquids. Tea bags, mostly. Donuts on occasion, sometimes cookies. And often I have a large glass jar under the sink containing fruit rinds or berries or vanilla beans submerged into an awful lot of vodka. It's an full-infusion household here, for sure. And this week I'm going to try it with tea.

I've settled on one basic recipe for infusing most vodkas. You can really just drop the fruit right into the vodka and let it sit a few weeks, but I like this recipe the best. Gives it a heft, makes more of a liqueur.

Here's the basic recipe for what turns out less like lemon-infused vodka and more like limoncello, adapted from trial, error and Cooking Light:
  1. Combine 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan. (Adjust this amount/ratio depending on your preference for sweetness.) Heat over a low flame until the sugar completely dissolves. You've got a nice simple syrup.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 5 lemon rinds, cut into strips. Let this cool completely to room temperature (otherwise, the next step evaporates the alcohol!).
  3. Stir the syrup and lemon rinds, plus 1/4-1/3 cup of lemon juice into 3-4 cups (one regular bottle) of vodka. Store in a cool, dark place for three weeks, swirling or lightly shaking the container every so often.
  4. Then strain and filter with cheesecloth. Stores in the fridge up to 3-4 weeks, or a year in the freezer.
The lemon rind can be replaced with a lot of different things. We did a great cranberry-lime version one year, with halved berries and lime rind. Cranberry-cinnamon was pretty tasty and autumnal. Our favorite is still good ol' vanilla; split two vanilla beans (possibly a challenge to find at the store) and drop ’em in the syrup. We also had good luck with orange rind and coffee beans, without using the sugar method; hot peppers work, too. Also, try nicking blueberries and putting those in with a cup of Chambord (and serve with a little lime). Note: I use Smirnoff's "triple-distilled" vodka for infusions. It's the right balance of quality (not great, but certainly not bottom-shelf, and the "triple-distilled" version helps) and affordability.

Today I'm starting some experiments with tea leaves. (I'm not the first — one company has actually bottled a sweet tea-vodka, targeting a Southern audience.) My concern is that, as tea lovers know, steeping tea too long increases its bitterness. So I plan to watch the samples carefully, tasting often. These could be ready in a few hours, or a few days.

I'm starting one regular large jar of the stand-by lemon version above. This uses one 1.75-liter bottle of vodka. I'm also trying small Mason jars — just like hooch! — with two spoons of these teas, with barely a quarter cup of the syrup:
  • A Chinese Keemun that's one of my favorites, from Tea Gschwendner (No. 555).
  • A Japanese Kabusecha, half-shade green tea from Gschwendner (No. 718). Probably a little too nice for an experiment like this, but I thought I'd want a very fresh, light taste to this.
  • Opened bags of Chocolate Mint Truffle, an herbal infusion from Mighty Leaf. I received this as a gift a while back, makes for a lovely treat with a rich dessert. Contains spearmint, cacao nibs and rooibos.
Here are the jars, taking on color quickly, left to right: green, choc-mint, keemun ...

I'll report back about the spectacular failure or my rush to the patent office.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A different kind of tea party

AS MILLIONS OF AMERICANS rush to the post office to postmark their tax forms before tonight’s national deadline, a few thousand others are using the occasion to stage protests across the country. And they’ve co-opted tea to help solidify their message.

Today is Tea Party Day, a thrown-together series of demonstrations voicing disapproval of President Obama’s stimulus packages and federal budget plans. There are 773 “tea parties” planned from Boston to Seattle today, and the thematic goal seems to somehow fuse the annual tax filing “holiday” with a metaphor from the historic Boston Tea Party. The latter was, of course, a revolutionary act leading to the United States’ war for independence, when in December 1773 a couple of hundred colonists dressed as Native Americans and protested England’s steep taxation of tea — and everything else — by boarding a ship and dumping crates of new tea into Boston Harbor. Today’s demonstrators seem to be reaching for historical street cred here, but from what I’ve seen so far the events are little more than collective kvetching, group bitching therapy, offering zero new or alternative solutions. But this is not a political blog …

What I have seen are tea bags sewn on hats, tea bags tacked on poster-board signs, tea bags hanging from people’s eyeglasses, on and on. Tea used as a symbol of protest and politics. Curious, after all these years and centuries, that tea still finds itself at the center of humankind's fuss. Is it the irony? A drink that staked its claim in modern culture as a restorative and relaxing elixir — what's it doing floating in Boston Harbor and being waved about by conservative grumps?

Tea has a long history in politics. Tea was power in Chinese dynasties, then a transformative power in the hands of China's new trading partners: the British. ("Hey, we like your tea! We're short on cash, but try this opium.") Then the British got theirs, as rag-tag colonists chucked crates of it into the harbor, poking holes in them to make sure they sank. Where will tea figure into the future? As an international currency in the era of water shortages? As a symbol of new green cultures and societies? As an icon on the flag of an environmental party or new nation?

Nice to see everyone talking about tea parties today, but I sure wish the people doing all the talking would sit down and actually have a cup. A discussion of the issues over a pot of Ceylon would so much further than shouting on Fox News.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

May I pour? Welcome to teasquared

Another tea blog? Really? Indeed, I set out on already charted waters, attempting to join the flotilla of tea bloggers already in progress. But tea is all about company, yes?

Just who the hell am I? I am not a beverage industry guy. I have no real tea business ambitions. I'm a writer, critic and a newspaper editor (see, I like Old World things ...) who somehow discovered, once upon a time, that I was energized and invigorated by a cuppa tea instead of inky offerings from the smoldering coffee pot that is the standard in my profession. I explored, I got hooked. And because I seem to be allergic to free time, I'm starting this blog. Like so many other hopeless souls, I have blogged my personal life for friends and family for many years. They no doubt rejoiced when I slacked off the self-indulgence. Someday I'll get back to writing about music, but for now, well, drink it in.

A manifesto, of sorts: This blog is experiential more than it is informational. I'm not here to report on the tea industry or write tasting notes on every new tea that emerges. I'll certainly natter on about the stuff that knocks me out, but this is not a source of the Next Big Thing in Tea. Unless I accidentally stumble on it. I simply enjoy the experience of tea, of sitting with friends and letting the liquor work its magic between us, or merely savoring the flavor of distant soil in my own meditative moments. I like the culture surrounding it, the people involved, the art created and the books written and the songs composed about it. I relish the seemingly endless process of discovery once one plunges down this particular rabbit hole. The world may be your oyster, but it's in my teacup. Every friggin' day.

So, come into my parlor, said the flyer to the spy. Drop by anytime. Door's always open and the kettle's always on.