June 5, 2008

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Tea, the original infusion
Soak thing in liquid ó magic ensues
By Tim Protzman†letters@hippopress.com

Which is older? Wine, beer, Zima (remember that?) or tea?

Well, wine is probably the youngest, so itís between beer and tea. Historians have long held that the first fermented beverages were created by accident. Some grain got wet and fermented. The same historians say that teas and infused and steeped drinks were created the same way. Hereís the story.

In ancient China, before the dynasties, before the emperors, there were cities and states. People farmed. Everyone owned chickens. And there was war.

A general on bivouac woke one morning and began to wash in some warm water. He set the wash basin aside and began his morning meetings with his officers. Some birds perched in a bush nearby and their cavorting knocked some leaves off the bush into the warm water. It began to change colors. Soon it turned dark. The general might have tasted it himself, but I doubt it. More likely he ordered a soldier to taste it after he smelled the fragrant aroma. Soon the relaxing effects and great taste led to the deliberate cultivation in Yunnan Province, the cradle of tea.

Iced tea used to be a special occasion for me. Iíd mark my calendar: First Day Iced Tea, usually in June, sometimes in May, once in March and a few times in April. I was used to sweet Southern-style tea. Seven tea bags, steeped in three cups of water and a half cup of sugar and mixed in a half-gallon pitcher with cold water. But only after it was cooled, or it would get cloudy.

When I was older I made my own discovery. At home one night after working a 3 to 11 p.m. radio shift, I ran out of mixer. Except for iced tea. I put the smallest amount of vodka in. Then a little more. Soon the tannic tea and the fiery vodka reached critical drink mass. The tea cut the thirst and the vodka provided a rich, oily texture that countered the smoky flavor perfectly. Since then Iíve used tea as a cocktail ingredient a multitude of times. Itís a good mixer and itís so different that it really blows tonic water right out of the cocktail shaker. And you can make a hot or cold drink with it. Here are a few favorites:
ē Dixieland Tea 1/2 ounce amaretto, 2 ounces whisky in a highball glass over ice. Add iced tea, stir and garnish with a lemon.
ē Carolina Iced Tea 1/2 ounce vodka, 1 1/2 ounces Southern Comfort, 1 ounce peach schnapps, 1 ounce spiced rum, 5 ounces iced tea. Shake and serve in highball glass.
ē Blueberry Tea Steep 2 cups of blueberries in three cups of hot water with 3 teabags. Remove the tea bags and dump the rest in a blender. Blend until liquid. Fill a highball glass with ice. Add 1 1/2 ounces white rum. Fill with the blueberry-iced tea mix and shake or stir.
ē Colonel Danís 1 ounce bourbon, 1/2 ounce lemon juice, 2 ounces 7-Up, 5 ounces sweetened iced tea.
Once youíve mastered the tea drinks you can go on to more infusion drinks. Itís endless. How about 2 ounces gin infused with 4 cloves of garlic and 10 Cerignola olives? This really dresses up a martini. Allow four days minimum for infusion.

I once made homemade brined lemons, a Mideastern cuisine treat. These were delicious in martinis and also baked on chicken as a seasoning. You can do this to almost any fruit. Try Black Mission figs infused in limoncello or a good port. Try apples infused for a week in a nice sauterne or dessert wine. The apple becomes dense and meaty with the wine and works as a garnish for drinks or an accompaniment to roast pork or duck. Thereís blood orange segment, delicately peeled and all that with white pith removed, infused with champagne for a couple of days. You can do the same with strawberries too. This makes a nice garnish, especially for cheaper champagnes because it adds rather than detracts from the champers.

The weirdest thing I ever infused was spinach. I took a half bottle of cheap sake and put the spinach into it. After three days the sake was green as a snow-covered yard in January. The drink was bitter, but it mixed well with tomato juice in the strangest Bloody Mary ever.

Good luck coming up with your own infusion therapy recipes, and remember, it doesnít have to be drunk; you can always just eat the alcohol-laden fruit. Which reminds me of my favorite ó vodka-infused pineapple! Two pineapples and a fifth of vodka.


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