Monthly Archives: March 2010

Get to Know Your Tea

If you’re like me, tea is a dried thing.  It comes either pulverized in a tin or pulverized in a little paper envelope affixed to a tag and string.  There is some mystery as to why some tea tastes a certain way, or even how exactly they make those tea leaves anyway.

I have tasted tea “in the raw,” as it were, three times in my life.  The first time was when I had an upset stomach, and Daphne, the housekeeper at the place we rent in the Caribbean, went out into the yard, picked some leaves off a bush, put them in a pot of water, boiled it, and gave it to me to drink.  It helped.  (I am reminiscing about this because I am back in Bequia, I have a head cold, and Daphne is not on the island.)  The second time was at my mother-in-law’s house.  A girlfriend had lemon verbena in her yard, and had dried the whole leaves and passed along a small bag of the feather-light leaves for making tea.  I actually wondered how exactly she dried them … upside down in a dark room?  Scattered individually on a cookie sheet?  Thrown after just picking them into the same little brown bag they arrived in?  So many questions.

The third time was in Morocco.  Leave it to the North Africans (those same industrious people who first introduced me to home-made yogurt) to change how I look at green tea forever.

Mint tea in Morocco is known as “Berber whiskey,” since they drink it constantly, on hot days and on not-so-hot days, instead of alcohol.  There is great ceremony around offering it any guest, pouring it from so high up that the light green stream cascading out of a very regal looking silver teapot falls with a satisfying burbling into the tiny little glass tumblers no bigger than your fist.  But I hadn’t seen it actually brewed until one evening, when a gentleman installed himself right in front of me, cross-legged on the floor outside of the dining room, flanked by a tray of tiny glasses and a pile of newly picked fresh mint.

This is how I can share with you the secret of making Moroccan mint tea.

You take fresh mint.  A lot.  You stuff it into a glass, right up to the top.  You pour boiling hot water over it.  You let it sit for 5 minutes.  You put in sugar, or maybe you don’t, depending on how you like it, and you enjoy every last drip drop.

When I saw this, it dawned on me that I too could make mint tea.  Because I have become a huge fan of mojitos, and as such, I have planted mint in my garden.  Mint doesn’t grow so much as it divides and conquers, so the one stalk I had pulled out of my mother-in-law’s garden and plopped into some dirt at home some time back had become a carpet of fragrant green pasture.

Again, there is something innately satisfying about making your own food. Now I realize that plucking a few greens and torturing them with hot water is far from making my own food in the way that whipping up pasta from scratch would be.   But it does mean that I don’t need to go to the store and buy little sachets of the stuff.  Which is satisfying in its own way.

Anyone else out there grow their own tea?


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Size Matters

A cup as big as my hand

After a concert last night in Berkeley, Anders and I passed by a frozen yogurt shop with a twist.  Yogurtland is set up self-service style, where you choose one (or two or three) of the 14+ different flavors and pull your own yogurt, and then pay by the ounce.  This is deeply satisfying, because you’re in charge.  I like that.

What struck me was not the number of choices, or the sea of different toppings offered (many healthy fruits), but the size of the cups offered.    No joke, the smaller one looked big enough to pack in a quart of ice cream.

I didn’t want a trough of yogurt, I wanted to satisfy my sweet tooth.

And we wonder why the U.S. is an obese country.

I swear this is my last yogurt tie-in, but in Morocco, the yogurt at the Riad was served in a shot-glass-size tall thin glass container.  We took to using the tiny tea spoons to eat it, because anything bigger wouldn’t fit inside.   It made the whole experience very delicate.   Appreciative.   Perhaps it was part of our love affair with this yogurt.  You had to eat it slowly and lovingly, or else it would be gone before your taste buds had a chance to register it.

The Italians do the same thing with gelato. It is offered in tiny cups, with a spoon that is really no more than a straw with the slightest flare at the end.  Oh, they’ll pack three flavors in there for you, but I’m going to wager that the amount of gelato in the normal Italian cup would not even be 1/5 of what could have fit in the gluttonous chalice I was eating out of last night.

Yogurtland gets my vote for healthy tasting yogurt in a cool dispensary.  They just need to take a nod from the Europeans and Steve Martin, and get small.

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Hug the one you’re with

Anders and I in Italy

It’s midnight and I can’t sleep, although I am bone tired.

Today I went to a funeral of a man too young to die.  The ball of hard hotness still sits in the top of my throat.  I can’t erase the image of Dan, in an open coffin, before his children ages 7 and 12.   And his wife of 16 years, whose choked sobs were the only sounds heard in the lonesome quiet between the readings from the Bible.

It makes no sense.

Many things in this life do not.

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On the Windowsill

If the kitchen is the “heart” of the house, then the kitchen windowsill must be the plaque clogging its arteries.

There are teeny tiny sand dollars on my windowsill.  I have three of them.  For a long time I only had one, because finding whole baby sand dollars is akin to finding a $20 on the sidewalk.   I think money from nature is genius.

Dramatic money also fascinates me.  That’s why there’s a Cuban peso on my windowsill.  “Patria o muerte” translates to “The fatherland or die.”

It’s joined by a few coins from our recent trip to Morocco where the face of the King of Morocco has been totally rubbed off.  It reminds me just how hard the Moroccans work for their living.

Lord Humungous is there as well.  It seemed a fitting place, the kitchen, for the Lord.

There are lots of little bottles that have been unearthed from the yard, some whole and some in pieces.  They remind me that gorgeous treasures come from the most unexpected places, and I love the reminder of how corn syrup has gone from a freaky special thing offered in a thimble-sized glass to being sold by the gallon.

I have a soft spot in my heart for dead things of the natural kind.  Perhaps it’s because nature can be beautiful even in death.  I stick cool-looking dead things in the bottles from the yard.

There’s a red-tailed hawk feather.  And a shriveled chicken wishbone.  A random piece of plastic that belongs to something important, I’m sure.  The bell I used to wear on my ski jacket as a child is there.  As is a tiny picture of Hans sitting in a pumpkin patch the day after I was diagnosed.  A reminder of how far we both have come.

What’s on your kitchen windowsill?


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The World’s Best Yogurt

It’s a small world, all right, and for me it runs through the middle of a spoon of yogurt.

Some might say the best part of traveling is experiencing food from around the globe.  It is rare that a family of three will all have the same “ah ha!” moment over the same food,  but such was our collective experience with the yogurt served to us in small clear glass containers every morning at Riad Noir D’Ivorie in the heart of the Medina in Marrakesh.

This was “homemade” yogurt, it was explained to me, and I’m embarrassed to say that I had never, ever considered making yogurt at home.  I was one of those mystery foods, kind of like cheese, that somehow is “made.”  I knew it was dairy.  I just didn’t know how much.

“We make it every day. It is very easy to do,” our waiter explained, and casually mentioned something about warm milk and Danone yogurt from France.  I didn’t quite understand his French enough to catch the details, but then it didn’t really matter, because they would bring us as much as we wanted and I didn’t have a kitchen at hand.  And frankly it was hard to concentrate, what with the nectar drizzling off the end of our dainty little spoons, as if it was pretending to be warm honey instead of cool yogurt.

Cut to the parking lot outside of school five weeks later, and I am speaking with two girlfriends of mine about a local woman named Bea who lives a zero waste lifestyle  Half in awe and half sort of overwhelmed and appalled by her zealousness, we are deconstructing the pros and cons of hauling glass jars to the store for your chicken breasts, when one child listening to our conversation starts throwing out items that couldn’t possibly fit within this lifestyle.

“What about the plastic bag that pretzels and chips come in?” he asks.

“She probably doesn’t eat them, or buys them in bulk,” we respond.

“And yogurt?” he asks.

Both of my girlfriends say, as calmly as if they were explaining the need to brush your teeth, “She makes it herself at home.”

Which, of course, resurrects the memories of my satisfied taste buds, and I regale everyone with my story of the perfect Moroccan yogurt.

Which then, makes me wonder … could I possibly merge both these interests – trying to cut down on the waste I produce AND make my own velvety smooth yogurt?

The answer is, sort of.

Armed with a recipe off the internet and a gallon of organic fresh whole milk in a returnable glass bottle (with the cream plug on the top) from Strauss Dairy, I give it a whirl.

My first batch never congeals, and so when I unwrap it from the towels, it is a slightly funky smelling big glass container of strange milk.  Not appealing at all.  So down the drain it went, which certainly wasn’t zero waste.

And for most things culinary that turn out badly the first time, I usually never attempt a second go-round.  But everyone said it was so EASY.  And so I carefully heated and cooled and swaddled batch two yesterday, with a bit of coaching from Kathleen.

“Use a candy thermometer. Leave it in there from the beginning, and let it touch the bottom of the pan.  Use enough yogurt as a starter and wrap it in towels.”

And wouldn’t you know, when I unwrapped it this morning, it didn’t swish.  It was solid.

Herewith is the recipe that worked for me.

Heat the fresh milk to 180-190 degrees.  Then let the milk cool to around 115 to 120 degrees, somewhere between very warm and hot.  Watch it on the thermometer.  (I used the one I have that came with the espresso machine).  For each quart of milk, stir in 2 tablespoons of yogurt, either store-bought or from your last batch, thinning it first with a little of the milk.

Then put the milk in a warm jar (which I had heated in the oven set at 200), wrap it in towels to keep it warm, and let it sit until it sets.  I put mine in the turned off oven overnight. The next morning, I put it into the fridge to cool.

So while the world’s best yogurt, according to the Glader family, is from Morocco, the most personally satisfying yogurt is the batch in my fridge right now.  It’s not as silky.  And it doesn’t have the same flavor as my favorite North African kind, but I made it myself.

And that counts for something.

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