Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Lemon Mint Tea Story - From Hammam to Tea Cup

This the first in an occasional series highlighting some of the many teas I regularly drink  (or at least sample).  Since I just inventoried my decaf and herbal teas I know I have 27 boxes or tins of these types alone so this could be a very long running feature.  In addition, I have another few dozen individual leftover and sample tea bags, too.  I haven't begun to inventory the black, green and white teas  I've accumulated.  Plus I have a lot of tea strainers, pots and other equippage to blog about. Oh, and the Fancy Food Show is next month and I always find new teas to try there.

I first learned about the wonderfully refreshing powers of lemon mint tea while I was laying half naked on a small towel on a large marble platform surrounded by billowing, hot steam in a Turkish hammam looking up at the intricately carved domed ceiling and feeling languid in the heat. Christina, one of my traveling companions, was telling me how she was able to find this tea, a favorite of hers she has bought all over the Middle East in Istanbul and encouraged me to seek it out.

"I can't believe Lipton makes it and you can't buy it in the States," she said.

I'm a big fan of both flavors and was intrigued enough to buy a box of Nane Limon Tea (once I had my fill of steam, cold water pool plunges, massages and brisk body scrubs at the hamman) at a Turkish grocery store to bring back with me.

Back in California, I brewed a cup and took a small sip. It was as marvelous as Christina had promised. It is more of an herbal infusion than a tea since the ingredients are pretty much just fruit flavor and herbs such as lemon grass and mint. I found it warming in the winter, cooling in summer.  It was a good pick me up yet it also was a good tea to relax with. It was great iced. It was great hot. Because it was herbal and had no caffeine I could drink it any time.  Only one problem -- I only had 20 tea bags of the stuff.

I hoarded my supply and stopped sharing it with friends and relatives. I searched all the local ethnic and gourmet markets -- no Lipton lemon mint tea, or even any substitutes.

I checked the U.S. Lipton website. Not there.  (But you can see it on the Turkish site.) I thought about mixing a lemon tea with a mint tea and making my own but before I could begin to experiment, I found a replacement brand in a local market specializing in Jewish and Israeli foods.

That's where I found my current lemon mint tea crush -- Wissotzky Nana-Lemon Tea. It's not exactly the same, but very close and wonderful in all the same ways as the Lipton version.  Wissotsky is made in Israel and is available through mail order as well as in some stores here in the U.S.  It's only $2.99 for 20 bags -- a whole lot cheaper than another trip to Istanbul, but of course, the hammam experience is not included.
The Lipton's box lists ingredients as: lemon grass, mint, lemon peel, lemon flavor, citric acid and chicory root. The Wissotzky tea ingredients as per the box are: Mediterranean spearmint leaves, rosehip, orange and lemon peels, citric acid, spearmint and lemon flavors. I haven't tasted these side by side so I can't say which I like better.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chai Life -- India Photo of the Day

One of the many delights in India is the wonderful tea.  Most often it was presented as a tea bag, often with powdered milk to stir into it.  (And it was still mighty tasty.) But when it was done right as chai masala as shown above as prepared by a sidewalk vendor in Jaipur, it was a mighty special drink.

Chai means tea, masala means spiced.  It is made with boiled or heated milk.

I really was surprised to have so much tea made from tea bags and to see so little in the way of tea shops, teapots and loose leaf tea, especially since India is second only to China in tea production and consumption.  To be fair, I wasn't really in any tea-growing regions and didn't seek out any fancy hotel teas or tea shops.

India's home grown coffees are tasty, but I opted for chai masala whenever I could. I had it at hotel breakfasts, roadside rest stops and once out of a small earthenware cup at a re-creation of a Rajasthani folk village.  Typical Indian servings are on the petite size.  I always wanted to supersize my cup.

To make chai masala you need a spice mix. You can buy it premade or make your own. (Careful, don't buy a chai latte mix - which will have instant tea and perhaps powdered milk - you just want the spices.  Chai latte is an American concept, a larger, milkier riff on classic Indian chai.)

I don't really have a recipe - I just use a mixture of what I have a taste for -- usually cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves.  Sometimes I even add a bit of black pepper. Some folks also use star anise. I usually use ground spices, but you can use whole, cracked spices if you prefer.  I have made great tasting chai with dairy and non-dairy milks, but in India I only had it with whole, regular milk.

To make a few servings (depends on size of your cup) -- place your spices (perhaps a teaspoon total of the ground spices) in 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Take off heat, add 2 Tbs. of black, loose tea.  Let steep for 5-7 minutes, until very strong.  Strain.  Return liquid to pot.  Add 2 cups of milk of your choice and sugar to taste (optional) and reheat, stirring occasional, until hot.  (Bringing the milk to a boil is more traditional in India where boiling the milk for 2-3 minutes is seen as a health precaution in some areas. It also brings out the milk sugars and helps give it a more caramelized taste.)

Everything is up for negotiation -- use a few tea bags if you prefer instead of the loose tea.  Add more or less spice or more or less milk or water.  Usually, I use Assam or  Darjeeling tea, but orange pekoe is often used and any black tea will work.  You can even use a decaffeinated tea. I've made good herbal versions with South African rooibos (red) tea.

If you have access to an Indian market, my preferred "quick" chai is Tea India's brand of flavored tea bags.  I have tried masala and cardamom flavors. Both are great and stand up to added milk.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

India - Photo of the Day - Bhel Puri - Or Chaat it Up

Bhel Puri is a mix of Indian snack foods, usually assembled or customized on the spot and served in a paper cone.  It is a class of food known as a chaat, which I'm sure I'll be writing about a lot just based on how often I ate them in India.

This vendor is outside the Ajanta Caves near Aurangabad, India.

He mixed puffed, baked and fried bits of rice, wheat, chickpea flour and other small bits of deliciousness and sprinkled with spice and lime juice.  Elsewhere I had bhel puri mixed in with cooked chickpeas and diced, cooked potato with a tart, thin tamarind sauce.

I haven't yet developed my own recipe, so here's some background from old reliable Wikipedia.

Here is a recipe that seems pretty close to what I experienced in India.  Warning you will need to look up some of the ingredients and shop at an Indian grocery store to make this! Same with this one. This version will probably still require a trip to the Indian grocery store but seems a bit less complicated.

Until I update this with my own recipe -- here's a Jewish fusion take on a similar Indian classic, panipuri, which takes the snack mix and puts it inside a small, puffed bread.  For my recipe for Bamba Bombay Pockets, please click here.

First post from new iPad and a Rhapsody over a Pear Almond tart

Truth be told, I was never happy trying to post from my iPhone, so here's hoping publishing from the tablet will work better. Photo is of a delicious pear tart my friend Judy Glick served us the other night.  The crust includes lemon peel and orange water, the filling was almond and it was superb.   Pear and almond together in desserts is a favorite combo for me and this tart sets the standard!

Update -- It worked well, better than the iPhone version I tried.  I was able to insert the photo where I wanted but not able to center and size it.  I was able to come back and edit the post and add labels (although I had to remember the exact name of the category).  All in all it will be great for travel but nothing beats the combo of blogger and desktop for now.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

June's Date-Nut Roll - A Sweet Christmas Confection

A friend of mine who is fighting a debilitating disease and has earned my admiration many times over for her cheerfulness, resourcefulness and really just her joy of life put out a Facebook request.  June could not take care of her own Christmas baking this year and instead of serving store-bought goodies asked her virtual and real friends to please volunteer to make her family favorites for her this year.

I was assigned this Date-Nut Roll, which is really more of a confection than a cookie. It is sweet and sticky and a bit addictive. 

"This recipe has been handed down for generations in our family.  You either hate it or love it. In my family of six of us kids, four loved it, two hated it.  Every year when I made it, I always had to make it for us, my little brother and my older brother," says June.

Be sure to buy the red-colored candied cherries rather than the green. (I had to go to a few stores before I found the red.)  This is very important since the candied cherries tint the nut and date mixture a pale pink and I'm not sure pale green slices of the loaf would be as appetizing. And yes, when you look at the recipe, six cherries is all you need.  Chop them into about 1/8" pieces.

I also used whole, pitted dates, sprinkled them with a teaspoon to sugar and chopped them to about 1/8" to 1/4" pieces.  I think freshly chopped dates are moister and tastier than the pre-chopped kind.  I used Deglet, but any variety of date should work fine.

If I was creating my own family tradition with this recipe, I might sub out the candied cherries for plumped and drained dried cherries, but this is not my recipe -- it's June's and I tried to make it as close to her instructions as I could.

Some other tips --rinse and wring out the dish towel you wrap the log in several times to remove any detergent scent.  Make sure the towel is just damp not wet when you wrap and roll the log.  I used twist ties to seal the ends of the towel to help the log keep it's shape.  The roll needs to chill at least overnight.  Be sure to place on a tray or pan since the sugar will weep through the cloth.

June's directions didn't specify, but I think the treat works best in 1/4" thick slices -- any thinner and they may not stay together - any thicker and it's a lot of sweet all at once.

I used a candy thermometer and felt that really helped but June gives directions either way.  I was unsure how to "beat" the mixture and ended up using elbow grease and a spatula for about five minutes until I felt the concoction would pretty much hold its shape when I poured it out onto the prepared towel.

June calls this a roll, but I was really only able to get it to form into a loaf, but it worked and tasted fine this way.  In hindsight, I would have prepared two towels and made two thinner loaves. Chilling the mixture a bit before spreading and forming might have helped in shaping it into a more elegant "roll."

Below is June's recipe with some additional directions based on my experience. 

June's Date-Nut Roll

24-36 slices (estimated) depending on width of log and size of slices

3 cups sugar
1 cup whole milk
6 red-colored candied cherries, chopped
8 oz. chopped dates
1 cup chopped pecans
1 Tbs. butter
Powdered  sugar

Mix sugar and milk in pot.  Bring to boiling point, add cherries and dates.  Boil slowly until mixture forms soft balls when dropped in cold water (about 234 to 240 degrees on a candy thermometer). Stir in butter.  Set pot with sugar-milk mixture in a large bowl or pot with cold water.  When nearly cool beat until mixture thickens.  Stir in nuts.  Spread on damp cloth in log shape and roll.  Refrigerate over night or longer.  When ready to cut, unroll log, roll log in powdered sugar and slice in 1/4" thick pieces.  Sprinkle cut sides of slice with powdered sugar and store in refrigerator, separating layers with waxed paper, until ready to serve.

Monday, December 16, 2013

South Indian Inspired Fish Cakes and Coconut-Cilantro Chutney Make Tasty Connection to Kerala's Jewish Past

(I'm just back from my travels in India --Mumbai, Delhi, Cochin, Jaipur and more-- and plan lots of posts and photos on the trip, what I ate and what I experienced. I'm still working on those. In the meantime here's a little "taste" to get you started -- a column I wrote for the j. weekly about an exhibit about Jews in South India that inspired some recipes.)

In the display case was a brightly painted and gilded Torah ark, familiar yet exotic beyond anything I could imagine a Jewish artifact being. Nearby was an unadorned metal hanging oil menorah, simple, plain and worn. To me the two illustrated the breadth of life as a Jew in southern India. They were part of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life’s exhibit about Jews in Kerala. The exhibit, at the collection’s Berkeley gallery, inspired me to play with some of the flavors and ingredients favored by Jews and others in that region. 

For both recipes, be sure to use finely shredded, unsweetened dried coconut. Seed the jalapeños to lessen their heat. Serve the Kerala Flavor Fish Cakes as a first course or light entrée.

Kerala Flavor Fish Cakes
Decoration from Kerala synagogue

Makes 8 cakes

4 cloves garlic
4 green onions (scallions) white and green parts, cut in thirds
1 small jalapeño, roughly chopped, seeded if desired
1” square of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 lb. boneless, skinless red snapper fillets, cut in large chunks, cold
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbs. dried, shredded, unsweetened coconut
4 Tbs. refined coconut oil
Coconut-Cilantro Chutney (see recipe)
1 cup fresh, chopped tomatoes

Combine garlic, green onions, jalapeño and ginger in food processor. Pulse until chopped, stopping to scrape down sides of container as needed. With motor running, add chunks of fish one by one until very finely chopped and fully incorporating the vegetables. Open lid, scrape down sides as needed, add coriander, cumin, cardamom, salt, pepper, eggs and coconut shreds. Close lid and pulse until combined. Open lid, scrape down and make sure everything is well mixed.

Wet hands with cold water. Shape fish into patties 2 1/2” in diameter and 1/2” thick. Heat coconut oil in a large, heavy fry pan over medium high heat until a bit of the fish dropped in bubbles on all sides. Add fish cakes, working in batches in necessary. Fry for two minutes on each side on medium high. Lower heat to medium and fry an additional minute on each side. Fish cakes should be browned, firm to the touch and cooked through. Drain on paper towels.

Serve hot, warm or room temperature topped with Coconut-Cilantro Chutney and tomatoes. Pass extra chutney.

Coconut-Cilantro Chutney
Makes about 2 cups

1 cup dried, shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup plus 1/2 cup water
1 small chopped jalapeño, roughly chopped, seeded if desired
1 cup roughly cut cilantro leaves, packed
1/4 cup roughly cut mint leaves, packed
1 tsp. finely chopped ginger
2 Tbs. tamarind concentrate or paste (or use 2 Tbs. lemon juice)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar

Combine the coconut with 1/2 cup water and let sit for 5 minutes. Put 2 Tbs. of remaining water in bottom of blender jar. Add jalapeño, cilantro, mint, and ginger. Blend until finely chopped. Add soaked coconut (do not drain), tamarind, salt and sugar, blend again until ingredients are almost pureed, adding remaining water in batches as needed to help ingredients blend. You may need to stop the blender and scrape down the sides or mix contents and then replace the lid and restart the blender several times. Taste and correct seasoning. Stir before serving. Keep leftovers refrigerated for up to a few days.