Technique Tuesday: DIY Herbal Tea

It always is the case that this time of year is when I finally start to think about drying and putting away some fresh herbs from the garden.  Maybe it is because I am so busy using them fresh in the previous months, or I'm subconsciously trying to put them away as late as possible to have them fresher longer (or I procrastinate...).  Regardless, it is not until the the temperatures flirt a little with the upper 30s (like it did last week!) (and which can be the kiss of death, literally, for basil and other more delicate herbs) do I seem to motivate to do anything long-term with them.

Along with the weather dipping lower, and Friday's first day of fall, I also start craving warm cups of tea, and, just as big marketing execs would want, start thinking ahead to the holidays.  This project helps satisfy both categories.

Herbs at the Jean-Talon market in Montreal last month.

Giant, and criminally inexpensive, bunches of gorgeous, fragrant, vibrant herbs are still available in the farmers' markets, and until a frost, perhaps in your yard or garden.  Drying an assortment will give you great building blocks for your own herbal tea.  Endlessly customizable, and super-natural, will be far more flavorful than anything that has been sitting on a store shelf for months and months.  And putting away more than you need will also give you the raw materials for a lovely on-the-fly holiday gift.


Flavored Salt

In honor of last week's National Popcorn Day, I've done some tinkering in the kitchen with flavorings.  My favorite project was coming up with different flavored salts.  It is outrageous that I haven't done this sooner, and even more outrageous the number of super costly little precious jars of flavored finishing salts that I have sitting in my spice cabinet.

The technique is nothing more than combining good quality salt, either kosher or sea salt, and good quality spices, herbs, citrus, or a combination.  It is up to you as far as the ratio of salt to flavors, depending on how concentrated you want the flavor and the color, and how strong the ingredient is you are using.  On average I used about 1 part flavor to 1 1/2 parts salt.  Simply put all ingredients in a spice grinder, coffee grinder, food processor, or mortar and pestle and pulse or grind until well incorporated.

Hint:  For spices, toast them lightly first to release more of their flavor.  Place them in a dry pan over medium heat, swirling frequently for a few minutes until they start to become fragrant.

This powdery little flavor bomb is amazing sprinkled over hot fresh popcorn, and as a finish for so many of your dishes.  It also looks gorgeous as a pop of color sprinkled around a plate.  They'll keep for about a year in an airtight container, making them fantastic gifts.  I mean, have you seen what these things cost lately?

Here are a few ideas below, but the combinations are endless.  Keep a little jar or two on your counter, and you'll find yourself using them on everything.  Put a few small dishes on your dinner party table, and let guests play with their food.

I used a brilliant french version of an indian masala, called Vadouvan, from the exquisite Spice House in Chicago.  Amazing on popcorn, but also chicken, fish, roasted vegetables (especially cauliflower), or a cold chicken salad.

Smokey, sweet, brilliantly colored spanish paprika. It rocked on popcorn. Would also be stunning on fried eggs, roasted potatoes, grilled shrimp, and roasted meats.

I used some high quality freeze dried shallots and chives (again, thank you Spice House), resulting in a savory blend that exploded with the most amazing aroma as it hit the hot popcorn. It was also absurdly good on my poached eggs this morning, and the small batch is almost gone. Mashed potatoes? Yes. Roast Chicken? Yes. Just about anything you want to spruce up with a little savory brightness? Most definitely. Bonus points for drying your own homegrown chives.

Zest the peel of a lemon, lime, orange, meyer lemon or tangerine. Allow to dry on paper towel, and then combine with salt.
Poultry and seafood would be particularly good, as well as roasted peppers.

Split and scrape a vanilla bean, and combine seeds with salt. Could have interesting results with some delicate fish and lobster, but I'm dreaming more of a stunning salty finish to a dessert, on a scoop of dense gelato, or a crunch on dark chocolate covered caramels.

Get the best five spice you can, and then bring me the popcorn! ...And the roasted chicken wings, roasted pork, roasted brussels sprouts, and noodles.

Pulse dried porcini mushrooms in grinder to a fine powder, and then pulse with salt. This earthy, chocolaty, elegant finisher adds a new element to a side of rice, a creamy pasta, eggs, a crostini with oozy cheese, or topping a puree of potato soup.

Dry both slightly, and grind with salt to make a bright, southeast Asian inspired topping. Beautiful in a ramen soup, on grilled fish or chicken, and even as an unexpected finisher to desserts.



Earl Grey and Lavender Granita recipe
A lovely and unexpected flavor combination, that serves as a small sweet forecast of warmer weather ahead.

I saw a new stand at the market this week I hadn't noticed previously. Lavender by the Bay is a lavender farm in East Marion, NY. They were selling a variety of dried lavender sachets and bouquets, but what caught my eye were small bags of dried lavender buds "for baking and tea."

Inspired by Sophie Dahl's iced tea recipe in this month's Food and Wine magazine, I experimented with the lavender and some excellent organic earl grey loose tea I had from specialteas.com, and came up with a delicate, floral, light dessert, that is not too sweet, and slightly musky. Definitely has me dreaming of warmer days with glass of iced tea on the porch.

by Catie
Makes about one quart

4 cups water
2 TBS loose earl grey tea (more or less depending on strength of tea leaves or bags)
2 tsp dried lavender buds (again, more or less depending on what you are using)
1/4 tsp lemon juice

Simple Syrup:
1/4 cup sugar (I used sugar that I had stored my old vanilla beans in--a great addition.)
1/4 cup water

To make simple syrup: Combine water and sugar in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the granita base: Bring the 4 cups of water to a boil and remove from heat. Add tea leaves, loose or in a tea ball, or bags, and lavender buds. Allow to steep for 5-10 minutes, depending on strength desired. Strain if necessary. Add lemon juice and simple syrup, to desired sweetness.

Either spin in an ice cream maker, for sorbet, or pour into freezer-safe dish and freeze for one hour. Remove from freezer and break up ice that has formed, with forks. Return to freezer, and repeat the breaking up of the ice every hour for 2-3 hours, until uniformly frozen.

To serve, scrape out granita with a large spoon, and top with lemon zest.

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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