Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Russian Quixote

Foiled but not defeated, I resumed my quest for drinkable tea in Philadelphia. It had been a mistake to attempt using the hotel room coffeemaker to boil water, I found. The water did not even reach the tepid mark, and as I was jonesing for my morning cup of Keemun prior to venturing forth into the lecture-hall for the day, I foolhardily steeped a sachet of Tea forte's Earl Grey -carefully packed in my luggage the night before- in this water. Mon dieu, it was truly unpotable. Neither fish nor fowl, it sent me forthwith to the elevators, down to the hotel dining room where within minutes, I was ensconced in a plushy seat with a pot of boiling water and Dammann Freres Gout Russe tea.

This black tea was aptly redolent of a citrusy scent, inspired by the Russian habit of taking tea -usually a strong black one- with orange or lemon slices. My black tea base itself was a melange of various Chinese teas that melded well with the the added orange essence.

Between spoonfuls of warm oatmeal -its spartan nubbiness offset by generous scoops of the now melted brown sugar along with fresh berries- and sips of the pleasing hot tea, I conjured up the harried Olga Mihailovna of Chekhov's wonderful short story, The Name-Day Party. Along with her husband, Olga and her guests set out in canoes across the river to a small peninsula where tables were already laid under the trees; the samovars smoking for tea. Concentrated black tea ( the zavarka), stored in a teapot which sits atop the urn-like samovar, is poured into a teacup or glass when tea is desired. Hot water, from the lower part of the samovar, is then poured from a spigot to dilute the tea before one drinks it.
On the peninsula, "the Island of Good Hope" as it has been monikered, Olga ministers to the whims and needs of her guests as she serves tea, all the while feeling acutely miserable.
While Olga Mihailovna was making the tea and pouring out the first glasses, the visitors were busy with the liqueurs and sweets. Then there was the general commotion usual at picnics over drinking tea, very wearisome and exhausting for the hostess. Grigory and Vasily had hardly had time to take the glasses round before hands were being stretched out to Olga Mihailovna with empty glasses. One wanted tea with no sugar, another wanted it stronger, another weak, a fourth declined another glass. And all this Olga Mihailovna had to remember, and then to call, "Ivan Petrovich, is it without sugar for you?" or, "Gentlemen, which of you wanted it weak?" But the guest who had asked for weak tea , or no sugar, had by now forgotten it, and, absorbed in agreable conversation, took the first glass that came. Depressed-looking figures wandered like shadows at a little distance from the table, pretending to look for mushrooms in the grass, or reading the labels on the boxes- these were those for whom there were no glasses. ......But she felt ill... She was irritated by the crowd of people, the laughter, the questions, the young wag, the footmen harassed and run off their legs, the children who hung round the table..... She felt that her smile of forced affability was passing into an expression of anger, and she felt every minute as though she would burst into tears.

I finished my tea and walked out into a fluttery pink world of blossoming spring, wishing that tea could have brought more joy to my Chekhovian heroine.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Silver Needle

Pleasantly sun-drenched, we strolled through Rittenhouse Square, surrounded by lolling springtime revelers. A tuneful "I am the Walrus" unfolded from a motley trio of musicians, lulling me into a welcomed torpor. My mind -sated from newly-acquired knowledge garnered at a medical convention in this city- gladly soaked in the brilliantly green foliage and the fully-blossomed pink.

Turning into a quieter side street, E and I were greeted by the Remedy Tea Bar tucked into an inconspicuous corner. The tea list was not long, peppered with many blended concoctions. My eyes scanned the list: melon-flavored black, a "dirty" chai, various greens, and finally, Silver Needle. This traditional-style white tea from the Fujian province is harvested in early spring when the plump buds have not unfolded themselves into leaves, and I felt it was only fitting for us to choose Silver Needle on this glorious spring day.

Using cooler water (180 F), I dropped the long, white-greyish leaves into the teapot and inhaled the pleasant vegetal aroma. The downy leaves unfurled in the now pale-golden liquor.

As I sipped from the thin glass cup -the bright sunlight playing with the hues of the liquor through the translucent walls- I felt bathed in a delicate piney and fruity wave. A small cookie -buttercream amidst chewy oatmeal with raisins- did not overpower the more nuanced tea.

We lingered in the waning light, surrounded by the diaphanous red curtains while my mind, mellowed by tea and sweet, was envisioning a benevolent Egg-man.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pale Fire

A light rain drizzled on my face as I wended my way to a teahouse/coffeehouse several blocks from the nursing home. It was one of the rare times that I had seen her, my patient, indulge in a hearty belly-laugh at (what else but) a joke that we had shared about tea. I was a little surprised when she told me that she had never drank a cup of green tea. She was willing to give it a try, she gingerly said. Would I bring some for her to taste? No promise that she'd like it, as she is wedded to her kosher Sprecher root beer.

A little aghast by the bluegrass piping overhead (not a favorite), I perused the impressive list of loose-leaf teas. Attracted by its floral scent, I ordered Chun Mei (precious eyebrows), a Chinese high-grown tea from Yunnan province.

Indeed, those darkened, curvaceous eyebrows brewed a sencha-subtle amber hue with that familiar grassy taste that had me invoking cherry-blossomed verdure.

A little addled by the roasty scent from the other beverage served here, I ambled up to the counter after my second infusion of the Chun Mei and asked for a cup of the recommended Jade Fire, another Chinese green.

I watched the leaves -coiled dark green pellets- brew in its much-too-tight mesh infuser. Little tendrils, rosette-like, loosened their curls coyly in the golden liquor, imparting a vegetal aroma. The taste was decisively that of a Chinese green. Present was a slight astringency but with a soothing softness.

I bit into a fulsomely caloric cookie. Studded in its every cranny were chunks of white and dark chocolate amidst the denseness of oatmeal. It was good.
The fiddling was now beginning to sound musical to me as I savored the last sips. With the doorbell clinking behind me as I walked outside, I pondered on what tea I would proffer her at my next visit to the nursing home.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Open Sesame

The sunlight poured through my windows shortly after dawn. I felt several padded feet lightly scampering over me and opened my eyes to behold a feline figure starting a roost for himself on my knee. He then became distracted by a chirping baby sparrow, who out of the blue, appeared outside the window pressing his inquisitive face against the glass pane. This sent our sable cat flying to the windowsill with those preternatural-sounding noises that he invariably makes when spotting any member of the avian race.

With that much spring in the air, I pulled out a flowering green tea, a uniquely Chinese conceit. A flower, ranging from a rose to an osmanthus bulb, had been placed amidst a cluster of tea leaves. The greenish leaves were tightly bound to each other, bulb-like, as if to protect a rare secret. I lightly deposited the bulb into hot water and watched the steam rise from the cup. Little by little, the leaves unfurled, revealing a rose-colored blossom fringed by fluttery yellow petals.

I sipped the golden liquor, inhaling the herbaceous scent. The taste was surprisingly subtle; only hints of the tea's floral nature were present. I paired the tea with a slice of a banana-strawberry bread bought from a local bakery. The plump berries seemed to serenade the now fully-flowered bulb, gently lolling in my cup. The sun became veiled by drifting clouds and the outside temperature fell as I finished my tea. I poured cold water over the fragrant blossom and placed it on the kitchen windowsill, preserving spring for another few days.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Green Giant

The matcha powder was in its small tin on the uppermost shelf of the kitchen cabinet. It seemed to regally hold sway over the rest of my teas. Or at least it seemed that way to me as I scanned my tea collection one morning. Sencha, the everyday workhorse, stolid in the knowledge of its utility, was getting depleted steadily, day by day. Likewise, Keemun, could predictably count on the brevity of its existence on my shelf. But matcha, the lordly matcha, more often than not, sat with forlorn dignity, waiting for its turn at usefulness.

Could it be that I have been just a little intimidated by matcha? Perhaps its hallowed role as the star in the chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) for the last several centuries has imbued it with a mystique that has deterred me from thinking about it as an everyday tea. Scooping the powder, lightly letting it fall into the water, and then whisking it, I have often felt the pull of ceremonial tradition.

It was then high time for me to remove matcha from its sacrosanct nook and bring it down a few notches: it would be just another ingredient in a recipe for an eggy custard.

I whisked together the melange of eggs, milk, and sugar as the matcha powder swirled about the bowl, streaking the mixture with a mesmerizingly green hue.

I inhaled the comfortingly familiar aroma -reminiscent of spoonful after spoonful of an eggy flan from childhood. The first taste had barely a hint of matcha despite the startlingly brilliant greenness of the custard. That intimation of the matcha flavor lent a piquant note to the soft custardy background. Between bites of pillowy softness, I sipped the floral Ancient Snow Sprout, a honey-sweet Chinese green tea.

Recipe for Matcha Custard (Adapted from Vegetarian Times, Issue: January 1, 2005)
Serves 4

1 cup of skim milk or low-fat milk
1/4 cup of granulated sugar
2 large eggs, well-beaten
1 heaping tsp. of matcha powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Heat milk and sugar in saucepan over low heat for about 5-7 minutes -until sugar dissolves.
3. Meanwhile, whisk eggs, vanilla, and matcha powder in a bowl. Pour this mixture into the milk-sugar mixture and stir well.
4. Pour the combined mixtures into 4 small ramekins and place these bowls into a large baking pan, filled partially with hot water.
5. Bake for about 30-35 minutes - closer to 35 minutes if using skim milk as the custard will take longer to set.
6. Remove from heat, garnish with berries, and serve either warm or chilled.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Snail's Pace

While winding down an early morning work-out, I happily anticipated my tea session with Pi Lo Chun (Spring Snail Shell) -a gift from a friend who is abetting my tea-habit. I have always wanted to try this Chinese green tea, captivated by the story of its provenance. Produced solely on the tiny island of Dongting which lies on a lake, the tea bushes from which the Pi Lo Chun is made grow amidst fruit trees bearing plums and apricots. I was curious to see if the tea's nature would reflect its rather romantic terroir of vernal orchards.

No longer bleary-eyed after the daily constitutional, I waited for the water to boil and examined the dry leaves. They were brittle in my hands, their greyish downy tips interspersed amongst the more plentiful green-hued leaves; twisted, cork-screw style. I could, with some imagination, invoke the image of a cozy group of snails, ensconced in their shells.

The sweetly vegetal aroma of the dry leaves slowly but perceptibly transformed into a bolder scent suggestive of artichokes. The snail shells unfurled shyly in the lightly golden liquor. I sipped slowly, anticipating a riot of floral and fruity flavors. My reveries were of lemon orchards along the cliffs of Sorrento -portrayed in the fabulous short story, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (from an issue of Zoetrope: All-Story). In the story, Magreb, the titular vampire, subsists on the succulent lemons grown regionally. However, the fruits never fully assuage his bloodlust and his immortal existence is one of perpetual longing.

Giving my fanciful thoughts free reins, I savored the first sip. The vegetal nature of the aroma now replicated itself in the taste of this light-bodied tea. Although no siege of fruit-laden aromas overcame me, I detected an unmistakable burst of lemon which followed the initial vegetal bite.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Smoke on the Water

I have had some ambivalence about Lapsang Souchong, a black tea from the Wuyi Shan region of China. I don't exactly know why that has been so, but heretofore, when a yen for a black tea has come over me, I have found myself giving a cursory glance at the canister bearing the Lapsang Souchong label and quickly deciding against it in favor of another black -often Keemun or Darjeeling.

But today was different. This tea's assertively smoky nature suddenly struck a chord within me. Perhaps it was the whiff of spring in the air leading me to anticipate a walk in the forest, over a floor carpeted with pine needles, emitting a verdant smokiness. At any rate, the long-neglected tea -bought several years ago, curiously enough, in a quaint Persian-owned general store in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago- now found itself emerging from its pantry holding-pen.

It is a paradox: smoke, evanescent and veiling - these qualities suggested in such expressions as smoke screen or smoke and mirrors- embodies itself so fully into the Lapsang Souchong so that the tea itself is unambiguously smoky and corporeally so.

It was only natural then for me to pair this muscular tea with the popover, its ephemeral and airy counterpart (this recipe was taken from Mark Bittman's compendiously wonderful How to Cook Everything). I inhaled the aroma emanating from the oven -one redolent of a baking swirl of eggs, milk, and butter, conjuring up toasty mornings ensconced in a snow-covered log cabin. Pulling the muffin tray away from the waft of heat, I was greeted with golden airy domes -transformed from erstwhile scoopfuls of creaminess- that seemed to soar from their earthbound state.

A popover slid off effortlessly onto my plate, its crusty browning base contrasting with the lighter-hued puffiness above. A bite into one revealed an unexpectedly custardy interior -pleasantly eggy with only a hint of sweetness. I sipped my Lapsang Souchong slowly, savoring its robust heft of smokiness and wishing for that fire in the sky.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tangerine Dreams

Having never been an insomniac for any long stretches of time, I was not anxious to become one whose dreams were punctuated by images of a lurid-colored flower. With only brief snatches of sleep the night before in which a carnivorous piece of flora -a hipper looking Audrey Junior- played a starring role, I decided a change was in order: I would give up drinking caffeinated teas in the late evenings. After indulging in many cups of green tea the previous evening, that night saw me wide-eyed, tossing to and fro in bed. My mind, surging unnaturally with activity, was racing like a whippet as the first rays of light peeked through the bedroom curtains. Realizing it was time to get up, I stumbled out of bed, flicked off the alarm, and got ready for work. The sleep deprivation affected me curiously; I felt unexpectedly alert and actually did not feel sleepy once the initial grogginess wore off. But this state was deceptive as I found myself making trivial mistakes unaccountably. So yes, it was time to make a self-intervention.

I tried to look upon this as an opportunity to enlarge my repertory of herbal teas. I counted among my tea collection a meager cache of tisanes: a rooibos, more teabags than I would like to admit to having, and one of my favorites, Rishi's tangerine ginger.

This tea's aroma, redolent of citrus essence, invoked an Andalusian orchard filled with ripened oranges on a sun-drenched day. The tisane brewed a deep berry-red liquor whose taste was tangy, sweet, and gingery, all meshing together wonderfully. I decided to pair this tea with a soba dish, one that has become a staple in our household in the last several years.

The nutty soba noodles were drizzled with a soy-based sauce in which a smattering of grated ginger and garlic along with dry sherry have been added. Generous amounts of fresh spinach and handfuls of assorted mushrooms, stir-fried with cubes of tofu, topped the noodles and made this dish easily a meal on its own.

The silky tofu ( I find Trader Joe's a particularly good source of fresh-tasting tofu), now suffused with the savory sauce, made a pleasing textural contrast with the nuttiness of the soba as well as that of the mushrooms. I sipped the tea and found that its gingery flavor met its complement in the noodle dish. As I gazed at the ruby-red liquor of my tea, I lazily wondered why I watched so many Roger Corman movies as a kid.

Here is the recipe for the noodle dish, tweaked a little from its original -I added mushrooms and decreased the amount of oil used for stir-frying, the latter to make it more "heart-healthy":

Teriyaki Soba Noodles with Tofu and Stir-fried Spinach and Mushrooms
(adapted from the August 2002 issue of Vegetarian Times)
2 large servings or 4 smaller servings
1/2 lb of dried soba noodles
3 Tbs. sesame seeds, toasted
1 lb. firm tofu, drained and cubed
4 cups of firmly packed spinach, rinsed and shredded
handfuls of assorted mushrooms ( I like shiitake and porcini)
1 1/2 Tbs. canola or olive oil
Teriyaki Dressing:
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbs. sherry
1/8 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 Tbs. grated fresh ginger
2 tsp. minced garlic
1. Bring pot of water to rolling boil and cook soba noodles according to package directions. Rinse under cold water and drain completely.
2. Toast sesame seeds until golden in ungreased wok.
3. Heat 1 1/2 Tbs. oil over medium heat in wok and stir-fry cubed tofu for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and spinach and stir-fry for an additional 2-3 minutes.
4. Divide noodles into soup bowls. Top each portion with tofu, spinach, and mushrooms. Add dressing, toss, and garnish with sesame seeds.