Beyond a beverage: How to give tea a bigger role at your table

Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup. Styling by Connie Mille/Chris Hunt for The AJC
Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup. Styling by Connie Mille/Chris Hunt for The AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

As much as I love my iced tea (there’s always a glass pitcher of some flavor of tea in the refrigerator), hot tea is what I turn to when I need a beverage that will relieve stress and provide a measure of comfort. Just the process of brewing and then sipping is calming.

A steaming mug of chamomile tea is my idea of the perfect bedtime beverage. Many months ago, I took a tea blending class with Brandi Shelton of Just Add Honey in Atlanta, so as 2020 was ending, I called to talk chamomile with Shelton.

One of the more than 40 blends she keeps in her shop is “Good Night,” a mix of three dried ingredients: chamomile, lavender and lemongrass. The proportions are 1 ounce of dried chamomile, 1 1/2 tablespoons dried lavender and 1/2 tablespoon dried lemongrass. You can buy the blend premade or purchase the ingredients and vary the proportions to suit your palate. Think you won’t like one of those ingredients in your tea? Customize to your taste. Just Add Honey keeps at least two dozen individual ingredients available, making it easy to customize a blend.

We chatted about how to go about creating your own tea blend. “Think about tea ingredients like taste textures. They can be floral, savory, sweet, fruity, spicy, tart or herbal. Pick no more than three. Chamomile is floral and herbal. Add something from one of the other textures. Try lemongrass. Or licorice. People give licorice a bad rap, but when you infuse it into tea, it offers a beautiful sweetness and a calming effect. Dandelion is another good addition to chamomile. It’s very relaxing. Or dried red raspberry leaves to help with anxiety. Make your blend, then brew a cup. Give it a taste. Love it? You’re done. Not so great? Start over.”

It wasn’t until I talked with Connie Miller of Chamblee’s ZenTea that she convinced me tea was a great ingredient for cooking.

Her shop offers more than 200 whole loose-leaf teas as well as teas in sachets and tea bags. Miller’s shop has built a loyal clientele of both locals and people who travel longer distances to enjoy her teas. Pre-pandemic, the shop was a community gathering spot and offered formal teas and tea tastings. During the pandemic, she’s moved to a takeaway model like her recent to-go New Year’s meal of black-eyed pea veggie soup, a savory cheddar and chive biscuit, a chocolate pecan scone and the diner’s choice of one of seven teas selected to complement the food.

Connie Miller, owner of ZenTea in Chamblee, poses with her Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup (same soup in both bowls). (Styling by Connie Miller / Chris Hunt for the AJC)
Connie Miller, owner of ZenTea in Chamblee, poses with her Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup (same soup in both bowls). (Styling by Connie Miller / Chris Hunt for the AJC)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Miller loves helping people along on their tea journey, turning people who only drank fruity herbal teas to what she calls “real tea drinkers,” but she also enjoys helping people think about using tea in their cooking and she offered three basic ways to get started.

Infusions: Use tea to infuse the richer component of a dish. Steeping tea leaves or tea bags directly into dairy products like milk or heavy cream is an easy way to add flavor to desserts like ice cream or panna cotta, or a savory cream-based sauce like bechamel. Using a strong-flavored tea like Earl Grey or chai to infuse milk or cream will add additional flavor when you’re baking cupcakes or muffins.

Marinades and rubs: Make a rub with a smoky tea like Lapsang Souchong along with spices and salts and use as a rub. Or brew a strong tea and use it as a marinade.

In place of broths or other liquids: Use tea as the broth for soups or as the liquid when making rice. Use a tea like genmaicha, a brown rice tea, as the liquid in your stir-fry or to cook vegetables, which gives dishes a natural nutty flavor.

RECIPES

Whether you want to change up your hot tea habit just a bit, or look at tea as a way to add another layer of flavor to your cooking, we’ve got the recipes to get you started.

Chamomile Latte (mid-process) steeps in a bottom-dispensing teapot at Just Add Honey in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Styling by Lily Moxley / Chris Hunt for the AJC
Chamomile Latte (mid-process) steeps in a bottom-dispensing teapot at Just Add Honey in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Styling by Lily Moxley / Chris Hunt for the AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Chamomile Latte, shown here at Just Add Honey in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, is something you can make at home. Styling by Lily Moxley / Chris Hunt for the AJC
Chamomile Latte, shown here at Just Add Honey in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, is something you can make at home. Styling by Lily Moxley / Chris Hunt for the AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Chamomile Latte

You’re used to thinking of coffee lattes. Try one made with tea. You can use this recipe with the tea of your choice.

Chamomile Latte
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 4 teaspoons chamomile tea
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • Honey and cinnamon, to taste
  • Bring water to a boil. In a heatproof container, pour water over tea and allow to steep 5 to 7 minutes. Strain tea into a mug and discard tea solids. Heat milk with a steamer, in microwave, or in a small saucepan and add to tea. Season to taste with honey and cinnamon and serve immediately. Serves 1.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 29 calories (percent of calories from fat, 35), 2 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 1 gram total fat (1 gram saturated fat), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 29 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Brandi Shelton, Just Add Honey.

The recipe for Genmaicha Green Tea Sauteed Green Beans incorporates a tea that has a savory, nutty flavor. Courtesy of Connie Miller/ZenTea
The recipe for Genmaicha Green Tea Sauteed Green Beans incorporates a tea that has a savory, nutty flavor. Courtesy of Connie Miller/ZenTea

Credit: Connie Miller

Credit: Connie Miller

Genmaicha Green Tea Sauteed Green Beans

Genmaicha is one of the most popular teas in Japan. Connie Miller of ZenTea says it was originally blended with roasted brown rice and popped rice to make the tea last longer in hard economic times. It has a savory, nutty flavor, which makes it a great ingredient for cooking. Use it in a recipe like the one here, or use the tea in place of water to cook rice or add to any veggie casserole that has rice or nuts in it.

Some people are stymied when working with loose-leaf tea instead of tea bags. Follow the directions here, brewing the tea and then straining out and discarding the tea leaves.

Genmaicha Green Tea Sauteed Green Beans
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons genmaicha tea
  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion or shallot, diced
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic or ginger
  • 2 tablespoons whole or sliced almonds
  • Salt and pepper
  • Thin rounds of fresh red and yellow peppers, for garnish
  • Red pepper flakes, for garnish, optional
  • In a saucepan or electric kettle, bring water to a boil. Let cool 2 minutes.
  • Put the tea in a quart measuring cup and pour slightly cooled water over tea. Let steep 3 1/2 minutes. Using a strainer, pour the brewed tea into a medium saucepan, reserving 1/4 cup. Discard used tea leaves. Add green beans to saucepan and bring mixture to a boil. Cook beans 3 to 4 minutes, just long enough to blanch the beans. Drain beans and discard blanching liquid.
  • While beans are cooking, in a skillet, heat butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic or ginger. When mixture starts to sizzle, add almonds and blanched beans and saute 2 to 3 minutes, or until beans just begin to caramelize. Add reserved 1/4 cup brewed tea, cover the skillet, and turn heat to medium. Steam beans for 2 minutes, then remove lid and allow beans to cool slightly. Taste for seasoning. Transfer beans to serving plate and garnish with peppers and a pinch of red pepper flakes, if desired. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 120 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 3 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 8 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 38 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Connie Miller, ZenTea.

The recipe for Chai Twice Baked Savory Sweet Potatoes uses Café Spiced Chai, a black assam tea base with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and vanilla. Courtesy of Connie Miller/ZenTea
The recipe for Chai Twice Baked Savory Sweet Potatoes uses Café Spiced Chai, a black assam tea base with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and vanilla. Courtesy of Connie Miller/ZenTea

Credit: Connie Miller

Credit: Connie Miller

Chai Twice Baked Savory Sweet Potatoes

Recipes abound for twice baked white potatoes, but sweet potatoes can be prepared with the same treatment. This recipe from Connie Miller of ZenTea infuses milk with her Café Spiced Chai, a black assam tea base with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and vanilla. Miller suggests making a pot of this tea to enjoy after dinner and serving it with cream and brown sugar cubes.

Turn this into a make-ahead dish by assembling ahead of time and refrigerating. When ready to serve, heat the oven, sprinkle the stuffed potatoes with feta and heat.

Chai Twice Baked Savory Sweet Potatoes
  • 4 medium sweet potatoes (about 1/4 pound each)
  • 1/2 cup nondairy milk (almond, coconut, soy or another of your choosing)
  • 2 tablespoons ZenTea Café Spiced Chai
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups chopped kale
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried cherries or cranberries
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta
  • Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Wash and dry sweet potatoes, prick all over with a fork. Arrange on a baking sheet and roast 1 hour or until tender when tested with a knife. Remove from oven and allow to cool a few minutes.
  • While potatoes are cooking, make chai-infused milk: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring milk to a simmer. Remove from heat, add tea and stir. Let mixture sit 5 minutes, then strain out tea and spices and allow milk to sit at room temperature. Discard tea and spices.
  • While potatoes are cooking, prepare filling: In a large skillet over medium heat, combine olive oil and butter. Add onion and saute until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in kale and dried cherries or cranberries and cook until kale is tender, about 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Keep mixture warm.
  • When potatoes come out of oven, reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees.
  • Assemble filling: When potatoes are just cool enough to handle, cut a lengthwise slice, about 1/4 of the potato, off the top of each. Scoop out the cooked sweet potato, taking care to leave about 1/4 inch of sweet potato in the shell; put the scooped-out sweet potato in a medium mixing bowl. Set sweet potato shells back on baking sheet. Stir the cooked potatoes so the mixture is mostly smooth but still retains some sweet potato chunks. Add maple syrup and stir in reserved chai-infused milk. Add onion-kale mixture and stir to combine. Taste again for seasoning. Stuff mixture back into sweet potato shells. Sprinkle feta over potatoes and return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until potatoes are heated through. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 360 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 5 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 17 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 32 milligrams cholesterol, 310 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Connie Miller, ZenTea.

Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup is one of the ways that Connie Miller of ZenTea in Chamblee incorporates tea into her cooking. Styling by Connie Miller/Chris Hunt for the AJC
Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup is one of the ways that Connie Miller of ZenTea in Chamblee incorporates tea into her cooking. Styling by Connie Miller/Chris Hunt for the AJC

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup

Using tea as a base for soup is brilliant. In this recipe, Connie Miller of ZenTea uses Oolong Organic DaHongPao Wu-Yi. It’s a roasted tea with a dark leaf and a smoky flavor.

Rice sticks generally come in 14-ounce packages. You’ll only need part of a package for 4 servings.

Asian Noodle Oolong Tea Soup
  • 8 ounces rice stick noodles
  • 4 cups water plus water for soaking noodles
  • 4 tablespoons ZenTea oolong Wu-Yi tea
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or avocado oil
  • 2 leeks, well rinsed, white and light green parts cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, light green part cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 2 cups diced, cooked chicken
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • For garnish: small hot peppers, chopped green onion or chives, cilantro sprigs
  • In a large bowl, add noodles and cover with room temperature water. Let sit 30 minutes or until noodles are pliable enough to wrap around your finger. Drain, discard soaking liquid, and return to bowl, then cover with a moist paper towel. Set aside.
  • In a saucepan or electric kettle, bring remaining 4 cups water to a boil. Let cool 2 minutes.
  • Put tea in a strainer that fits into a heatproof teapot or quart measuring cup and pour cooled water over tea. Let steep 4 to 5 minutes. Remove strainer and discard tea leaves. Reserve brewed tea.
  • In a large saucepan, heat olive or avocado oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks, carrots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and ginger. Saute 4 to 5 minutes, or until leeks are translucent. Add chicken and continue cooking until chicken is heated through. Add reserved tea and broth and simmer soup 10 to 15 minutes over low heat.
  • Divide noodles between 4 large soup dishes. If you wish, discard lemongrass pieces and kaffir lime leaves before serving. Pour soup over noodles and garnish with peppers, chopped green onion or chives and cilantro. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 424 calories (percent of calories from fat, 21), 25 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 10 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 54 milligrams cholesterol, 832 milligrams sodium.

— Adapted from a recipe from Connie Miller, ZenTea.

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