What passes for a refreshing drink, either hot or cold, at any time of year is a matter of changing tastes. Certainly coffee is the uber-tonic. Its popularity never fades, and medical reports continue to give it a clean bill of health for consumers of all ages, including pregnant women. It is ubiquitous, iconic, embedded in our collective psyche and it smells divine. Some large coffee conglomerates have seen the need to “upmarket” this steadfast beverage into ever more tongue-bendingly named concoctions on a seasonal basis. My daughter, who counts her carbs sometimes, recently noted that a large caramel cappuccino frappe topped with whipped cream and all the amenities contained 3,600 calories. That amounts to the total calorie consumption of a person of her size and sensibility for a full two days.
Whatever it is that makes up the appeal of these elaborate calorie bombs, the café culture from which they issue is certainly part of it. There is the ritual of standing in line with kindred souls, some in a rush on their way to work but unable to proceed without a hot cup wrapped in a cardboard sleeve in hand, others fortified with a steaming brew proceed gingerly to carefully laid out newspapers and laptops for intense noodling. And there is the promise of delivery of just the perfect concoction, prepared before the eyes in massive, costly machines that simply cannot be substituted for with dinky home models.
I decided to take some time for tea lately, and give myself a coffee break. Fortunately, this time I was able to forego my daily morning cup of coffee, prepared at home on a small stainless steel stovetop espresso maker, without suffering a caffeine withdrawal headache. I must have been a prepared spirit. The idea started some months ago when I took the suggestion from a farmer to try making tea out of fenugreek. Fenugreek is a lovely, pungent herb that resembles watercress, and I had never tried cooking with it, let alone steeping it in water and drinking it. I tried it, and it had a mild flavor that was pleasantly satisfying. I could imagine drinking it with a hearty Middle Eastern meal. Curious about what other herbs might be thrown in a pot and brewed, I began asking questions and experimenting.
Chamomile is one of my favorite scents. It elicits memories of the smell of fresh mown hay on a hot summer day. Its pert little yellow puff button flowers, surrounded by a collar of tiny white petals, grow on long delicate stems and make lovely bouquets for the kitchen, where I keep them until I put them in the teapot. I’m never sure how much of the stem to include in my tea, so I just cut off the top few inches of the plant and discard the rest. Chamomile flowers can be dried, too. Just be sure to bag them carefully as the blossoms shed prodigiously. Measuring the proportion of herbs to hot water is a pretty inexact science, but I tend to put a lot of herbs in my teapot. Then I add the hot water, just off the boil so it flows in smoothly without bubbling, cover and let the tea steep for a few minutes. Chamomile tea comes out of the tea spout a lovely bright yellow color. I find that, like all fresh herbal teas, it doesn’t need anything added to improve its flavor. Its heady smell and pleasing color are enough to satisfy.
The farmers’ market offers a huge variety of fresh cut herbs to sample for tea. Of course, mint is well known for its delicious taste and aroma, and there are several types of mint to choose from – from peppermint to spearmint to some spicy exotic brands. Lemon is also a wonderful flavor to brew in a teapot. You can find lemon verbena, a delicate, spiky leafed herb that has the most intense flavor of all the lemon scented plants. There is also lemon grass, a tall, flat-leafed plant that is often used to flavor baked meats or fish. The mint and lemon teas can be chilled and served over ice on hot days. They are remarkably refreshing, and they do not require any added sugar to make them palatable, unlike summer’s popular lemonade and limeade. Like all tea, they are best drunk fresh, but they are so easy to brew up that making a fresh pot daily is no hassle at all.Farmers assured me that almost any savory herb would make a good tea. There is sage and lavender to try next. Nettles make a healthful tea, and if you can talk a farmer into bringing you some bitter melon leaves, their essence is considered to be a potent anti-cancer tonic. Next time you are walking around the market picking up herbs, think about tossing a bunch of them in a teapot. You might come up with summer’s best cooler.