If it were practical, I would bring my entire tea cabinet with me when I travel. I would have all my stalwarts at hand, wherever I may be. It is true that even in a tea-impoverished zone, I can usually find a cafe which at least carries Lipton tea. But I am spoiled, when it comes to tea. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it: what tea to drink, when to fit it in at work, and what kind to get when replenishing my tea supply (which always seems to be dwindling). With all this preoccupation with tea, can you blame me if I find an encounter with a dangling tea bag from an oversized paper cup slightly anticlimactic?
So, wanting to be duly prepared, I put together a tea kit for our last get-away of the summer. The essentials: two tea mugs, two metal infusers, a teaspoon for scooping out tea, our trusty electric tea kettle, and a large bag filled with Silver Needles, a tea mellow enough to drink into the waning hours of day. I stored these carefully, tucked between cottony summer clothing.
At an inn by the bay, I dismantled the kit and found for it a temporary home on a solid oaken dresser. In the morning and in the evening after dinner, I would brew tea for us, our little household ritual transplanted for the time being up north. Instead of the hum of sparse city traffic, I hear the crash of surf outside our window as I boil water.
I woke up in the early morning to the lapping of waves and the plaintive cries of gulls. My head, still on the pillow, I looked through the half-open window, curtains blowing. I saw a vast expanse of ripply blue, broken occasionally by cresting foam. I felt as if I were floating on a barge, its motion imperceptible, as I could not see the patch of reedy marshland below our window.
I walked out the front door with a mug of tea in each hand, my sandaled feet wet from the dewy sedge. I handed E his mug and settled back with mine, looking out across the bay at the jutting spit of land protecting our cove. The familiar taste of the Silver Needles, sipped from an oft-used mug, imbued my morning with a sense of home.
E returned from Door County with his overnight bag in one hand and a bulging paper bag in the other. Inside the bag were shiny red cherries that he bought from a roadside stand. These were tart cherries, probably the last of the season, and I was glad to see the unwrapped bag, now perched on our kitchen table. I hankered after them for months, awaiting their short-lived harvest in mid-July, and fearful lest I missed it altogether. I listened to E recount how he came upon the cherries, tucked away on the side of a road with fast-moving traffic and next to a bevy of baby goats huddled under a sign proclaiming $5 To Pet Us. A farmer stood in the middle of this entrepreneurial operation, between bleating goats and three-tiered shelves creaking under the weight of cherries. There were the tart cherries, ruby-red sweet cherries, and even yellow ones, all heaped in 3-pint boxes and metal pails. E took away a boxful, which basked snugly in the back seat of our car for the next four hours while he drove home.
With the cherries, I baked a streusel for our tea. From the oven, aromas of cardamon and cooked brown sugar wafted forth, while my stomach growled.
I pulled out my new bag of the Marumura sencha, a fukamushi (deep-steamed) from the spring's first flush harvest. Up to this point, I've only had the asamushi sencha -which is lightly steamed- and looked forward to tasting its longer-steamed counterpart. I brewed the fukamushi for a brief 45 seconds and sipped expectantly: the taste was mild with a barely-there astringency of a sencha. The vegetal flavor has less of a mouth-coating umami than that of the 1st flush Nishi, an asamushi I have been drinking lately. The second infusion of the Marumura -brewed for a mere 15 seconds- was more flavorful than the first and still mildly vegetal. I thought, if I were sencha-naive, I would most likely prefer the fukamushi to the asamushi; the former a little too innocuous. But I have been drinking sencha for several years -more avidly nowadays- and so prefer a kick to a sedate nudge in my tea.
This kick was a piquancy that could easily backfire and turn undrinkably bitter if the tea were left to brew for seconds longer. But with mindful attention to the brewing, a perfect cup emerges, full of nuances for me to discover. I sipped the tea and with a forkful of the cherry streusel in my mouth, relished the kick of cardamon.
Recipe for Cherry Streusel (adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)
Ingredients; 3 pints of pitted tart cherries 1/2 cup of sugar For the streusel: 1 stick of butter 1/2 cup of brown sugar 1 tablespoon of lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon seeds from 10 cardamon pods 1 cup all-purpose flour pinch salt
Directions: Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease 9-inch baking dish. Cream butter and brown sugar with electric mixer. Stir in flour, cinnamon, cardamon seeds, salt, lemon juice until combined and crumbly. Set this aside and in another bowl, combine the sugar with the cherries. Place the cherries in the baking dish and pour the streusel mix over the cherries. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden. Serve warm.
I woke up to thunder and flapping blinds, hiding a glowering sky. The expected sunlight did not filter through the window, and my body refused to stir in the darkness. I lay in bed, half-awake, while the cats scampered over me, impatient for their breakfast. One demanded, in plaintive meows, his first-of-the-day petting while the other galumphed heavily above my head with her swishing tail. She used my pillow as a launching pad. Thump, and she was on the window ledge, distracted by the action outside. My mind traveled ahead to breakfast and the day ahead. We had finished our cache of homemade granola I made last weekend, and I thought of making more for the week before the predicted warm front following the rains would come and heat up the whole house, dissuading me from turning on the oven.
I finally got up. With the rain still coming down steadily but not quite a torrent, I called to the cats and herded them downstairs. They flew down the stairs and planted themselves at their respective dining stations and dove into the small pellets plopped into their bowls. While the kettle started its slow rumble, I gathered the ingredients for the making of granola. Pantry doors opened; here were the rolled oats with the outsized face of a Quaker staring back at me, and there was the box of whole almonds in the corner. In another cabinet were the spices, and I pulled out bottles of cinnamon and cardamon pods.
The rumbling of the water finally crescendoed as I scooped out the dark coiled leaves of the Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong and placed them into the glass infuser.
I sipped the tea and worked. Into the mortar, I threw a handful of cardamon pods. Tiny black seeds emerged as I cleaved the pods with the pestle. Ah, the most aromatic of scents, that of cardamon. I find a pretext to fill the kitchen with its aroma, releasing it with a few flicks of the wrist, watching the hulls yield their hardy quarry. For a few minutes, my kitchen becomes an olfactory heaven.
The large bowl quickly filled up with the dry crumbly ingredients. I drizzled in honey and some olive oil and dug my hands into the mixture to evenly distribute the wet ingredients. I felt exhilarated, hands deep in a gooey mess, sticky with flaky oats. There was nothing like that feeling at work, where hands made hygienic with scaldingly hot water were the order of the day. De rigeur cleanliness and precision reigned in examining rooms by necessity.
I thought about that contrast between home and work and realized that I needed thedisparateness, where vocation and avocation are complementary, both different in their natures. I thought of a physician-colleague who does woodworking in his spare time while another internist is an accomplished classical guitarist who has been spotted playing outside cafes in the evenings.
With the third infusion of the oolong, we tucked into bowlfuls of granola and saw the skies clearing, to reveal slivers of sunlight.
Recipe for Granola (inspired by Melissa Clark's recipe and Mark Bittman's recipe, both from the NYT) Ingredients: 5 cups rolled oats (not instant nor quick-cooking) 1 cup whole almonds 1/4 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup honey 1 tsp ground cinnamon Seeds from 10 hulled cardamon pods (use mortar and pestle) 1/4 tsp salt 2 Tbs olive oil 1 cup of dried currants 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine oats, almonds, sugar, cinnamon, cardamon seeds, salt. Add honey and olive oil, and with your hands, distribute them well into the dry mixture. Place the mixture on a sheet pan, which is lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30-35 minutes, with every 10 minutes, stirring the mixture and rotating the pan 180 degrees. Mixture should brown evenly. 2. Remove the granola from the oven and add the currants. Cool on rack, stirring once in a while until the granola reaches room temperature. Transfer to sealed container and store in fridge. It will keep indefinitely.
The moth flapped its wings against the screen of the kitchen window, drawing our black cat's attention. The latter jumped onto the wooden table, which abutted the window, his attention rapt by the fluttery wings, the tap-tap-tap they made against the screen. His paws set themselves squarely on the table's edge, his head moved ever so slightly as the moth went in and out of his field of vision. At the open window, I sipped White Peony, its white tea essence smooth and barely sweet in my mouth. Soon, our gray cat joined the party. More impetuous, she flailed her brindled paw impotently at the disappearing moth. The prospective prey now gone, both cats dispersed into the living room, jumping down with a thump.
The breeze rustled, drawing itself through the window, and I felt it against my cheeks. I heard the neighborhood kids, their voices occasionally breaking the silence. A garage door clanked open, and our neighbor's yellow Volkswagen Bug emerged. I waved to her as she sped by. It was already early afternoon, and I rose to prepare dinner.
Contents from our friends' CSA box sat waiting in the fridge. For a week, we would sample the bounty from a local farm, thanks to our friends, now traveling overseas. Beets with their chard-like leaves, mixed lettuces, along with giant cucumbers and a kohlrabi, packed our small fridge to its limit. I peered into the leafy thicket and pulled out my quarry: a tangled bunch of basil, still caked with soil, in a plastic bag. Its scent tingled my nostrils, and I set out to make pesto for dinner.
I washed the leaves, the dirt rinsed away in a thin, dark rivulet. I culled them, stemmed, now in a dark green mass and watched the varied-sized fronds whirred about in the blender, slicked with olive oil and headily aromatic with bits of chopped garlic.
We sat down to dinner, plates of steaming noodles topped with pesto sauce. I filled our cups with more White Peony -only mildly-caffeinating as it was now early evening. I thought of, in years past, going to the Saigon outdoors market with my mom. We passed vendors with their rickety tables, underneath canvas awnings. The tables groaned under the weight of piled-high produce and meat. Sights and smells pressed on me: flayed fish with silvery fins, a cage of squawking chickens, the rank smell of the abattoir from the dangling pigs on makeshift hooks. I held my mom's hand tightly as we walked through the din; vendors, shoppers, a leper with his outstretched stump of a limb, all in a blur.
Now, we sipped our tea and ate pasta with pesto in the fading light as clouds scudded by. The rich basil taste lingered long after we finished dinner.