Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tweet-a-lee-dee! Try Steepster instead

Here's a fun new bit of tea tech. I was about to kick off a Twitter feed for teasquared, and I probably still will — but here's a Twitter-like service especially made for tea lovers: Steepster! Sign up, type in the tea you just drank, write a note about it. It racks up a log of what you drink and what you think about it (complete with thumbs up or down), and you can type more than 140 characters.

Bookmark teasquared on Steepster and follow what we're sipping.
Join in and we'll follow you, too!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Third flush off the old bush

My father died in March, shortly before I began writing here. As he lay in the hospital bravely taking on the last of what cancer threw at him, I spent as much time as I could at his side. And when he finally slipped away, I — the journalist in the family — was assigned the task of penning his obituary. I knew my father well, but upon reviewing his written history and professional bios and the bare facts of his legacy and accomplishments, I was stunned by the now obvious theme in that list. Everything he did — his humble legal career, his dedicated military service, his part in the creation of the Methodist senior center in which he passed away — was done in service to others. There's so much to be proud of on his resume, but there is no pride. He worked hard, and he did well, but he was always working for something greater than himself. That's what made him so great.

So after the obit, I wrote his eulogy. Standing up at his funeral was easily the most difficult task I have yet faced, and I'm glad that only comes once in life. When trying to frame this theme of service, I thought back to something I had noticed during those hours spent at his hospital bedside. A card, one of many such things, had been left behind by the maid. On one side, it denoted the time his room had been dutifully cleaned; the other bore a printed quotation or some such aphorism meant to comfort or inspire those, like me, who would come across it in a trying moment. This one, in a few sentences, told of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy (for whom this and so many other Mercy Hospitals are named), and her focus on service to others. Even as she lay dying, she wasn't thinking of herself, asking, "Will you tell the Sisters to get a good cup of tea ... to comfort one another?"

That evening, Mom and I shared some Constant Comment as we discussed the beautiful service, his beautiful life and the many people who are better because of Dad's commitment to serve and comfort others. Then I drank a toast to the old man with a glass of his favorite claret. To close with his favorite parting words: "Be good and you will be happy."

Friday, May 29, 2009

A three-course meal: first flush, second flush ...

A small feature in Time Out Chicago this week (can't find it on their site to link yet) checks in with "what local chefs are doing with tea." The items:
  • A chai cocktail — Darjeeling tea with honey and vanilla vodka — at the Dana Hotel.
  • Green-tea dusted diver scallops, "gently" using matcha tea powder, with a pea puree at Boka!
  • Chamomile ice cream at Takashi. The pastry chef steeps the flowers in cream first, then uses that to make the ice cream and serves it atop pistachio sponge cake and lemon curd.
Sounds like a complete meal to me!

(Time Out also has this ol' list of five great teahouses in Chicago.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How long does good tea last?

I recently cleaned out my tea cabinet. I moved along a gaggle of random mugs I hadn't used in years. I gathered stray packets, bags and samples into a sencha-colored tin. Most importantly, I trashed a lot of old tea. I mean, really old. There were some Lipton bags in there someone had given me two houses ago (thanks so much, I'll put them right up here...), and a dwindled pouch of Nepalese Darjeeling a friend had sent me from San Francisco back in at least 1999. Freshness matters, after all, no matter how pretty the calligraphy on the box might be.

One of the features now at World Tea News is about just how necessary this kind of cabinet-cleaning might be. Could I still have brewed that Darjeeling and stomached it, or gotten any of the usual health benefits from it? A recent article in the Journal of Food Science covers a study saying that green tea's beneficial ingredients only remain stable for six months. (Freshness matters, indeed!) The World Tea News story, the first of two parts, starts from there and offers a few different viewpoints.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A preview of 'Tea Music'

Need some new tea music? Already weary of Cat Stevens' "Tea for the Tillerman" or "Tea in the Sahara" by the Police? There's a guy here in Chicago, a clarinet player named James Falzone, pretty interesting fellow — and on Aug. 25 he's releasing an album called "Tea Music." It's the debut of his three-year-old working quartet, KLANG. The music, however, doesn't fit so harsh a moniker ("klang" in German actually just means "sound" in general). The press release transmitted today claims: " 'Tea Music' takes its name from Falzone's penchant for drinking tea while composing." He's got some samples on his site, but we encourage you to start with this track, called "China Black":

Listen here to "China Black" by James Falzone!

Dig it!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Smokin' out tea for dinner

Drinking tea, yes, we love it. Eating tea, that's a different story.

I went a little crazy for the holiday, experimenting on my poor spouse with a full dinner menu of dishes containing tea. Here's what we had, and how it turned out:

Lemon drop cocktails
Recipe from a book simply called Green Tea: a mixture of green tea (chilled), pepper vodka, limoncello, stirred with ice and topped with club soda. Bracing, a nice pick-me-up. Tart lemons, sweet syrup, a little astringency from the tea and, hey!, a little spice around the corner.

Earl Grey-smoked pork loin
Adapted from a recipe out of Naturally Peninsula: Tea Flavours, a nearly ridiculous collection of beyond-gourmet recipes that no home cook would ever bother with. But you can extract some of its bones for more satisfying fare. This recipe joins the pork with a morel sauce, a lentil tapanade and some fried leeks for garnish, all of which I ignored. I just wanted the tea-smoked meat: soak Earl Grey leaves for about 10 minutes and drain, mix with orange zest (and I added brown rice per some previous smoking experience), then use it to smoke a 2-lb. pork loin. I butterflied the loin before smoking. Afterward, I seared it in a skillet and finished it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. The Earl Grey smoke was quite acrid, but the flavor it imparted into the meat was delicious and quite unusual — tangy and sweet, in a vaguely mesquitey kinda way. I'll try this again, for sure.

The blackened tea leaves after smokin'.

Strawberry-avocado salsa
Instead of the other savory flavors paired in the Peninsula cookbook, I opted instead to wed the salty, smoky pork with a recipe from Cooking Light: cup o' chopped strawberries, 1/2 cup chopped avocado, some chopped red onion, 1 chopped jalapeno, cilantro, lime rind and juice, stirred together with a 1/4 teaspoon sugar. A perfect complement to the smoky meat, spooned right over each slice. I mixed mine up a little too early, though, and it started to get mushy already. Assign this to those prep cooks you married into service.

Baked potatoes with green tea garnish
Another adapted recipe from another tea book, from Steeped in Tea: Grill (45 mins.) or bake (1-1.5 hours) 2-4 baking potatoes wrapped in foil. Slice 'em in half, scoop out the cores (as if making potato skins. Mash what you scooped out with butter, sprinkle with Gyokuro green tea leaves and place the mixture back into the potato halves. Instead of actual leaves, I used some matcha powder. Careful, a little goes a long way. Made a nice green mixture for the potato skins and added a fresh, green flavor to the starchy taters.

Spring pea salad
Here's hoping fresh mint leaves qualifies for a tea menu. This recipe from Real Simple is just a mixture of fresh peas (blanched), mint leaves, a sliced shallot or two, capers, lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper — and crumbled goat cheese mixed in at the end. Not cool, not hot, serve at room temp. Damn tasty, but maybe too rich alongside these other dishes.

Ice cream with Sencha crumble
Another recipe carved out of a much bigger, sillier orchestration in the Peninsula book: stir together half a stick of butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup cake flour, some almond powder (I crushed some slivers) and a small pinch or two of green tea powder. Spread the mixture on a greased baking sheet, slip into a 325 oven for about 15 minutes. While still warm, sprinkle with another pinch of tea powder and a little powdered sugar. Let it cool down and break it into pieces. I slapped slabs of this on top of some quality vanilla and, oh mamma, it was great!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Red is green in new rooibos blends

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Riddle me this: How can red tea be green? I’m just now beginning to see “green” rooibos teas popping up here and there. Apparently, the green red teas are unoxidized, like regular green teas.

Anyone tasted these yet? What’s the taste/health benefit of this process for this plant? Do tell.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Teavana crops up in the sticks

Ha! As you might have noticed, I'm based in Chicago, but I'm a native Okie. So for my fellow Okie readers back home, good news! You're getting a Teavana store! It's opening soon in Penn Queer Mall (sorry, Penn Square ... old habit). Thank heavens I won't have to rely only on Starbucks for a sip of civilization whilst visiting mamma ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The comments continue about Constant Comment

Photo from Bigelow Tea
via Tea Guy Speaks: Bigelow Tea sponsored an essay contest recently, awarding the winner with a trip to the company's tea plantation in Charleston. The winning piece was written by a Chicagoan. She echoes my own experience with Constant Comment — enjoying it with Mom:
We would sometimes sit out on our outside front porch in the summer when everything was rich and green and the morning doves were cooing, crickets were noisy and read a good book savoring our CC tea.

How much is "all the tea in China"?

We might want to start saving pennies in a teapot. Rough weather around the globe has brought woe to the tea industry in several key growing regions. India, Kenya and Sri Lanka have suffered droughts for six months now that have cut production by anywhere from 12 to 41 percent. Thus, prices are expected to bump up 10 to 20 percent by the end of this year.

This news report, however, from Asian News International, speaks of a boom for Indian tea exports, saying that even though production has been hurt a bit demand continues to rise around the world …

The thing for us to watch out for is this: “As price of tea leaves rise, the tea vendors are forced to compromise on quality.” When buying, ask lots of questions. Where did it come from? When? etc. You’ve every right to know, and I’d be wary of any seller who gets snooty in the face of questioning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gotcha, matcha! World Tea Expo ’09 news

News is dribbling in from the annual World Tea Expo held earlier this month in Las Vegas. (I'm a little appalled by the lack of live news from the Expo. Where were the bloggers, news sites, etc.? I'm going next year, and will fill this void!)

The big trend this year appears to have been matcha tea powder, which was showcased in its original use — whisked into a traditional Japanese tea — but much more as an ingredident in numerous bottled beverages, as well as everything from snacks to cosmetics.

The following is a pretty good video — well, it's a slide show with live audio, from Celebrity Chef Connection via YouTube — sampling some of the exhibitors and their tastes and trends at this year's expo. You'll hear at least one matcha moment here, with one exhibitor saying, rightly, "If everybody had a matcha moment, we'd have a much happier planet."

I'm always intrigued by the annual winners of the World Tea Championship. The complete list of 2009 winners is here, and I'd love to hear from any readers who've sampled these teas previously or do so in the future. I've got the list bookmarked and plan to funnel the occasional disposable income in that direction.

I can speak to one winner: Tea Gschwendner's Earl Grey (No. 69), which is the most knock-you-over fragrant Earl Grey you'll ever encounter. The taste, however, is not so bold; rather, it's simply strong, confident and colorful. I recommend. (TG is capitalizing on the company's fine showing by offering a sampler of all their teas that won or placed in the championship.) Rishi Tea absolutely dominated the championship, with 28 total awards, 11 of those being winners. (They have a sampler for sale, too!)

The winning tea cocktail sounds bracing and refreshing: the Genevrier Verte (Green Juniper) by Max Solano of Emeril's Table 10. Here's the recipe, which I love for two chief reasons: (1) he uses Hendrick's gin, which is my favorite, and (2) he uses an egg white, which is a delicious throwback to classic cocktail couture ...

Genevrier Verte
1 1/2 oz. China Mist Pure Blackberry Jasmine Iced Green Tea with Lemonade
1 1/2 oz. Hendrick’s gin
3/4 oz. Agwa Coca Leaf Liqueur
3/4 oz. vanilla/clove syrup (see here)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
1 egg white
Shake over ice, strain, and pour into a chilled glass.

Here's a YouTube video of the contest at the ’09 expo. The event makes imbibing look about as much fun as painting baseboards, but hey ...

(That's the World Tea Expo, but here's another tea expo on the other side of the world: last month's China West Lake International Tea Culture Expo featured opening ceremonies, a Longjing tea exhibition, even reading of tea poetry.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

There's a dragon by the well

via Perplexitea: I love rooting out the old legends behind the nomenclature. From The Chinese Art of Tea by John Blofeld, here's the origin of the name Dragon Well (Long Jing) tea:

"Around the year AD 250, so runs the story, a Taoist affirmed that there must be a dragon lurking in a certain spring not far from Hangchow. Having made this discovery at a time when the farmers had long been praying for rain, he implored the well dragon to come to their rescue. Instantly, clouds came rushing in from every side and poured forth timely rain. On this account the name of an old temple adjoining the spring is known as Dragon's Well Monastery, and the tea derives its name from the same legend.

"Another source relates that a poor widow living in that particular vicinity owned a few tea trees and used their produce to brew tea for peasants harvesting tea nearby. One day a rich merchant, hearing of her kindness, remarked, 'A good-hearted woman like you deserves to be wealthy.' 'I am lucky not to starve,' she answered, smiling. Glancing round, he noticed a large stone mortar which happened to be full of leaves deposited by neighbouring tea trees over the years. 'Want to sell that old mortar?' he asked. 'If so, I'll come back and cart it off tomorrow.' She took the money offered, so the next morning he came back with some workmen to cart it away. To his surprise, the shabby old mortar had been swept and scoured. 'You can see I've made it nice for you,' smiled the old woman. 'All those leaves came in handy to manure my tea trees.' Heaven had clearly rewarded her charitableness by endowing the leaf mould with miraculous properties, for not long afterwards her eighteen tea trees put forth jade-green leaves the like of which had never before been seen. Such, according to this alternative account, was the origin of Dragon's Well tea. It is said that the old woman prospered greatly.

"Those well acquainted with the kind of tea affirm that it achieved the utmost perfection when prepared with clear water from Tiger-Run Spring, which 'miraculously' appeared close to a temple not far from the tea garden. During the reign of the T'ang Emperor Yuan Ho (806-821) there was another terrible drought, and once again the people of Hangchow prayed vainly to the gods for rain. One day Abbot Hsing K'ung saw two tigers rush out from the nearby forest and start running to and fro in the temple grounds. Suddenly water began bubbling up from the ground trodden by their feet. From that day to this the spring has never run dry. Its water is marvellously clear, and when used to brew Dragon's Well tea the infusion looks like liquid jade besides giving forth a delicious fragrance the lingers on the palate. As a Ming visitor remarked centuries later: 'I'd love to be a monk living here always with such tea and such water for companions!' "

Saturday, May 16, 2009

iTea: Four nicely brewed iPhone apps

OK, I'm a free app whore. I've filled five pages of my iPhone with bounteous, useless software gadgetry, most of it blissfully free — like these:
  • Evernote (it'll totally organize my life, once I learn to use it ...)
  • Taxi Magic (even though I ride the L everywhere)
  • iZen Lite (a Zen rock garden, just drag your finger to rake the gravel)
  • SitOrSquat (instant locations and ratings of nearby public restrooms)
  • GuitarChords (I haven't strummed a note in three years)
  • Famous Documents (someday the bizarre set of circumstances will present itself in which I'll be glad I had the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783 and the Texas Declaration of Independence in my pocket)
  • Plus, a nifty astronomical star chart I have no idea how to read.
Recently, though, I loaded up on tea apps. Here are my faves:

Tea Time
It is awfully handy to have a tea timer on the go, and this one (pictured above) is exquisitely simple. Just pick your tea type — black, green, white, oolong or herbal. Then pick how you like it — mild, medium or strong. Select loose leaf or bag, and hit Start. It calculates the proper steeping time, even recommending the proper water temperature. Tea Time remembers the settings from your last cup, but there's no way to save different settings.

Tea Tasting Notes
This is the one I'm most excited about. I used to make fun of oenophiles who kept journals and steamed labels off their favorite wine bottles to paste carefully in keepsake volumes. As a tea lover, I get it now. So many varieties, so much to keep track of. This little database app packs a wallop, allowing users to record the name of a tea with a rating, notes about dry leaf and wet leaf appearances, color, aroma, taste, a Web address (if applicable) and comments. You can even take a photo of the tea! The search feature is easy and accurate. So when I enjoy a new Nepalese white at Tea Gschwendner, I can make a few quick notes — even snap a shot — and be able to reference it next time I'm shopping. Or just use it as a database at home.

The Book of Tea
An essential tome for all tea lovers, The Book of Tea is an important resource for Asian history and traditions in teaism. Now you can have it with you anywhere. This app is simply the full text of The Book of Tea, readable chapter by chapter. Handy as a reference, or just to have something refreshing to read on the train. (FYI: If you have the whole Kindle thing going on with your iPhone, The Book of Tea is also available through Amazon as an e-book for $3.92.)

Binary Tea Timer
Utterly useless. But just weird enough to be entertaining. This geek app counts down three steeping times — green tea (3 mins), black tea (4 mins) and chamomile tea (6 mins) — but it does so using a binary clock. Good for buttering up the IT guys with a pot of assam, or just having something kind of arty to look at wwhile you wait. Worth every penny you pay for it, anyway.

Now, set a jaunty tea song as your ringtone and you're good to go.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tea toast: the Tea Shop Mysteries

We all have our guilty pleasures, right? I'll confess to three right now: When no one's looking, I love to ... eat Cool Whip with a spoon (or, sometimes, my finger) right out of the carton, listen to Kenny Loggins' double album "Alive" (c'mon, it's a great concert recording), and read Laura Childs' Tea Shop Mystery novels.

The last one I do right out in the open anymore. I devour these books, and I'm not a huge murder-mystery buff. I enjoyed Agatha Christie novels when I was a teenager, but it never got beyond that. And the Laura Childs books are nothing that special — the plots are intriguing enough, the writing's OK and getting better — but I devour every one of them, and the tenth one was just published. The central character, the sleuth, is a woman named Theodosia Browning. She runs the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, S.C., where an awful lot of the upper crust tend to meet grisly ends in the first chapters. The joy of them is that the murder mystery is simply an excuse to hang out in Theo's fragrant tea shop; to discuss the creations of her assistant, Drayton, a "master tea blender"; and to describe the culinary concoctions of her cook, Hayley (recipes are printed in the back pages!). For me, a thirtysomething music journalist, it's all a little girly, for sure. And I can't reccommend them highly enough. I just got my sister hooked. Join in!

Theodosia, like her author — real name Gerry Schmitt (I'll never understand the penchant for pseudonyms in the paperback business) — is a former advertising and marketing exec. Schmitt used her marketing acumen to target her mystery books to the burgeoning tea culture (ahem). She also writes another series of mysteries with scrapbooking as the theme, and she just started a new one, the Cackleberry Club Mysteries, about three women chefs.

A toast to fun tea reading!