Post 33: Free Your Tea

Not much of a tea drinker? Don’t click away just yet. This post goes beyond tea. As my friend Keith let me know when I referred to my hot herbal drink as “tea,” true tea comes from the tea plant. The leaves of Camellia sinensis—a plant, shrub, or tree—have been consumed as a hot drink for centuries, starting in China, where it was found to be medicinal. It does have health benefits—it’s an antioxidant and an immune system booster, among other healthful attributes. But really, don’t we drink tea because of the energy boost? Black tea has roughly half the caffeine of coffee. So, if a coffee high is what you’re looking for, just drink two cups!

Tumamoc Hill, on the edge of Tucson. Photo by Anthony Mendoza/Flickr.

I like to be sipping a hot cup of something while I’m on the computer, all winter and often summer, too, under finger-numbing air conditioning. So, at work one summer, when I heard green tea had numerous health benefits, I tried it. I liked the taste, so I kept sipping. I probably drank six cups that day. It wasn’t until the last cup that I realized I was getting maniacally shaky. Uh-oh. I had been thinking of it as a laid-back herb tea, but it most certainly wasn’t—it’s the same plant as black tea, prepared differently, and with somewhat less caffeine. I have more tolerance for caffeine now, having eased myself into a morning coffee habit, but this was before. I felt like I could have climbed to the top of Tumamoc Hill in about two minutes.

Mormons don’t drink tea; they’ve identified caffeine as a drug. We should take a cue from them and slap a prominent label on it—not just for green-tea greenhorns, but also for parents of kids drinking soft drinks: keep the colas out of reach, or the kids could get wild.

Canned tea
Canned and bottled tea is a bad idea. This can lists high fructose corn syrup as its number one ingredient after water. “Lemon” isn’t even mentioned. (Citric acid is.) It also contains no less than four ingredients—sodium polyphosphates, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and calcium disodium EDTA—just to keep it from going stale. You’ll pay more and be left with a piece of garbage when you’re done. All this, when good tea-making is so easy

After inadvertently tripping on green tea, I decided to explore herbal “teas” from the grocery store. Most came in convenient teabags, which were wrapped in individual square packages inside a box. It was a just-add-water deal. And besides the traditional peppermint, rosehip, chamomile, and hibiscus flavors, some stores offered more unusual varieties—almond, vanilla, caramel, cranberry, ginger, apple, lemongrass or lemon balm. I had fun trying them, one after another. Sometimes, to get a second cup, I’d put the teabag on my spoon and wrap the string around it to squeeze the last bit of liquid out of it, then add more hot water. I got more for my money that way, though it did taste a little bit like paper.

Grapefruits to be squeezed
If my fruit is bigger than my squeezer, I cut it into smaller pieces to get all the juice out. Right: The surprising find from Value Village. Left, on the cutting board: A hand squeezer for limes and lemons from Food City. The open side of the fruit should face the holes. It will be turned inside-out.

One day, boiling water for what I thought would be a hot cup of lemongrass tea, I discovered that the box was empty; I’d used the last bag. But I happened to have some actual lemons. A neighbor’s tree had begun to drop fruit on the sidewalk, and the earth-dwelling bugs hadn’t found it yet. I cut the end from one of them, squeezed it into my hot water, and took a sip. The water-juice ratio was perfect; had I squeezed the entire half-lemon, not just the quarter or so, I think it would have been too powerfully sour.

What was missing was the teabag taste, and a slight staleness from sitting on the shelf. The flavor was pure. And I could get four cups out of one lemon.

Sure, I was also missing the herbal benefits of lemongrass or lemon balm. But lemon juice has its own benefits—vitamin C and other healthy ingredients. If you’re consuming tea for particular health benefits, of course, you won’t want to make substitutions. But for flavor, freshness, the comfort of a hot drink, and to save money, I use real lemon.

Grapefruit ice cubes
I like to use metal ice cube trays for water, but I keep old plastic ones on hand just for juice cubes—it’s easier to extract them from plastic (unfortunately!)

As I write this, I’m drinking grapefruit tea. My friend Royce (see Post 14) just brought me a bag of sweet, perfect grapefruit, so I juiced some. I do own an electric juicer, but to use it I have to find an extension cord and a place to plug it in. It’s simpler to set up my large manual juicer, with its easy-to-clean parts. (A California friend of mine had one of these—made our breakfast orange juice with it. When she told me what it cost, I repressed my dream of owning one. Until there it was at Value Village for $20.) Pulling out a few grapefruits for snacking, I juiced the rest, and poured the sticky-sweet liquid into ice cube trays. For a hot drink I usually drop two or three cubes into a small saucepan of water, and bring it to a boil. When the cubes have melted, your drink is ready to pour into a glass, with another cup starting to cool in the pot for seconds. drop them into a hefty cup, and fill the cup with boiling waterAdd or subtract a cube to adjust the intensity of the taste.

Any citrus fruit can become a hot drink—limes, oranges, even the bumpy-skinned “sour oranges” that are usually left to rot on the ground. Some can be bitter, so a taste test is a good idea before serving to guests.

After my citrus drink success, it occurred to me that the ginger tea I was buying in teabags could be made simpler, cheaper, and fresher by cutting up a ginger root. I keep it on hand for smoothies. Last summer I stuck a sumptuously sprouting root in some dirt, and it put out a shock of narrow, pointed leaves, making me feel tropical—till the plant turned yellow and died. Until I succeed in growing it, I’ll continue to pick it up at the grocery store, where it’s displayed with the other still-naked (thankfully) produce, and I can see to pick out a fat one. I slice the root thin for maximum surface area and throw the pieces in boiling water. Of course the Internet offers recipes and tangential information, but there’s really only one thing to know: for stronger tea, use more ginger and boil longer. Mmmm . . . spicy.

Ginger flower illustration
Ginger flowers are gorgeous—I was compelled to draw this one.

Tip from a failed experiment: don’t bother trying to make crystallized ginger candy out of the boiled ginger pieces when you’re done. They’ll be drained of most of their flavor: It’s gone into the tea!

Some days I feel like vanilla. I didn’t know there was such a thing as vanilla ”tea” until I saw it in the store in teabags. I liked the taste, but when I ran out it seemed easier to reach for my bottle of vanilla extract than go back to the store. Using vanilla beans would have been a more direct way to avoid the bags, but I didn’t have any, and knew little about them except that they were pricey. The extract is, too. But it took just a few drops per cup and involved nothing more than boiling water.

It struck me as a strange thing to drink. I only knew vanilla from making desserts—frosting, cakes, candy. Diluting it with hot water and drinking it seemed odd, even unappetizing. But having lived in Germany with a British landlady, and having visited London a couple times, tea with milk came to make perfect sense to me. Then I took it one decadent step farther and began to take my tea with cream. Vanilla “tea” with cream? It was dessert. It was a comfort food. If I needed to go for a cold ride on my bike I’d take it with me in a thermos. Whatever gathering or meeting or event I was at, I sipped my secret dessert—the warmth making me feel like I was still in bed.

I also kept almond extract in the cupboard. (You can see where this is going.) I think it was a Scandinavian thing. Every Christmas my mother got out her heirloom pressing-tins to make sandbakkels—which were nothing more than sugar cookies, really, except that they were flavored with almond extract. Then there was marzipan, made primarily of ground almonds. I clearly remember the first time Mom made it. I flipped. She made little fruits out of it—apples, bananas, and peaches, all tinted with food coloring—but I wanted to just shove the dough into my mouth. When I grew up, I did. In Frankfurt, the marzipan stand was on my way home from work, and no one stopped me from buying it.

So, yes, I used almond extract to make a hot drink similar to the vanilla one, and the taste, for me, was even more reminiscent of treats from the past. Vanilla and almond are often used to flavor true teas, and other ingredients (fruits, spices, herbs) can complement them also—but I haven’t done much experimenting. (You could.) In this post I’m thinking mostly about avoiding packaging and, in doing so, tapping more directly into flavor sources.

It’s yet another example of how life gets better when you declare independence from commercial products and venture out on more satisfying personal journeys.

As packaging goes, the teabag, string, individual wrapper, and box aren’t the worst polluters. But some do use foil. I’ve found the wrappers in my compost with their inside coating seemingly resistant to decomposition. And I happened upon one teabag that really pissed me off. It felt like plastic. And, what do you know—online, the manufacturer admitted it was nylon. Nylon is a thermoplastic made from petroleum. By definition, thermoplastics go soft in high temperatures. I for one don’t want a nylon teabag—even if it’s free from that paper-teabag taste.

I’ve stopped buying the fake vanilla, not because of the plastic bottle it comes in (enough of a reason in itself), but because I’ve read it’s chemically produced from paper mill wastes. And I do like the tiny glass bottles the genuine extracts come in. Labels removed, they make perfect mini-vases for tiny wildflowers and a small sprig of fragrant creosote. (Eventually the bottles will go with Terry on his weekly bike trip to the nearest glass recycling bin.)

Tea accoutrements
A few loose-tea infusers. Left: These are for submerging, swishing, and then removing with chains or handle. Right: These rest on the cup rim as the boiling water is poured over the contents.
Background cloth handwoven by Cathy Phaneuf.

Connoisseurs of tea and hot drinks can back away from the teabag scene with loose tea. I’ve collected a hodgepodge of the accouterments needed for the experience. My favorite is the ball-and-handle tool because I can stir with it as the contents steep. I load half the ball, and the other half fills up as the ingredients expand in the water.

So many leaves, herbs, dried fruits, and other ingredients can be used for hot drinks that, were I a better gardener, I could present an inspiring list of sources. But you’ll have to look elsewhere for that. Sorry.

Mesquite beans and chaff
Left: These beans are broken up by hand.  Right: Chaff from the blender or mill is most efficient for extracting the flavor and sugars. Inside the little packets are the seeds.

My best loose-tea experience came from a prolific gardener who had grown so much mint that he gave me enough fresh boughs to loosely pack a five-gallon bucket. I stripped the leaves from their stems and spread them out to dry. Then, gathering them up, I pressed them into a gallon jar. I have no idea how many cups of mint tea I made from that jar—perhaps I could tell you if I hadn’t also used them in quite a few tabouli salads.

Did you know that peppermint tea with cream tastes like mint-chocolate ice cream?

But I don’t want to promote ice cream, cream, or milk. My vegan friends are correct: The dairy industry is out of control and pernicious. Our three chickens give us “humane” eggs now. Should I get a goat? The neighbors would hate the smell. But cows don’t do well in the desert. I’ll save some coconut milk from my next coconut and see how it tastes in my vanilla infusion.

This year was the longest mesquite-bean season in memory. The rains went on and on, the mesquites kept producing and dropping beans. Last week, into the last half of February, the wind was still knocking them down from our trees. So Terry keeps making cookies. He puts the dry beans in a blender and filters out flour and meal from them. In each pod there are tiny, super-hard beans in little tough “packages” that don’t go through the screen. He saves this chaff for me, for making into hot (or cold) drinks. I scoop up about a cup of it and throw it into a pot of water, shake some pumpkin pie spice on top, and set it on the stove. I boil it for, I suppose, half an hour. Two empty cups wait. I fill each through a handled filter. Sometimes there’s cream, sometimes not. There will be seconds.

If you’re not blending beans to make flour and meal, you can break whole ones into three or four pieces each to allow the boiling water access to the interior sugar. This is my region’s native “tea,” also called atole. It’s so naturally sweet that no foreign sugar is needed. Not much equipment was needed in the old days: a handmade ceramic cookpot, water, and a fire.

I guess that’s why it’s my favorite tea.

Nettle tea
Don’t forget to make tea from your nettles! (Post 30)

2 thoughts on “Post 33: Free Your Tea

  1. While I prefer to make ginger tea from the root itself, I do confess I haven’t been able to give up coffee completely. I did stop using the espresso maker because of the extra water it used. When in a hurry — I use a pour-over with an unbleached filter. I’ve used the same one five times before sending it to the compost. But cold brew — a jar in the sun or in the refrigerator for a day will brew it.

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    1. So glad you mentioned sun tea! Moving to Tucson from Minnesota, I always thought it was such a happy miracle. Thank you, Marge!

      On Mon, Feb 28, 2022 at 12:26 PM New Stuff Sucks wrote:

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