Tea Time with a New Toy

What warms the hands as well as the heart, especially on a blustery Autumn night? A nice cup of tea.

How can you make a new acquaintance feel special or comfort an old friend? With a nice cup of tea.

I love to drink tea. I like it strong and I like it hot!

 

Recently, I received a gift from a friend who knows about my love affair with tea. It is called an “Almigh’ Tea Bag” from Supreme Housewares. This cute little thing is made completely from silicone. It is shaped like a tea bag with tag intact! I’ve carried it to work with me and tried it out with several different cups and mugs.

Cup, Saucer and Tea Bag
Cup, Saucer and Tea Bag

The base of the bag comes off so you can stuff the insides with your own mix of herbs and spices. Some like it strong, some like it light. With the Almigh’ Tea Bag, you can make it just like you want it.

Almigh'Tea Bag
Almigh’ Tea Bag

Here are some of the advantages that I found with this item as compared to the metal spoons or tea balls that you have in your utensil drawer at home.

  1. It is adorable.
  2. It is inexpensive.
  3. There is no metal to ruin your microwave.
  4. It travels well in your “go to work” mug.
  5. To clean out the tea leaves, simply turn it inside out. The leaves come out very easily.
  6. Small quantities as well as buying in bulk will save you money.
  7. No waste, even the used leaves can be added to the compost.
  8. Fresh tea leaves and herbs give more robust flavor.
  9. You aren’t stuck with a whole box of tea in a flavor that you didn’t like.
  10. It is easy to experiment with flavor combinations.

 

My experiment included whole cloves,              star anise and orange mint
My experiment included whole cloves, star anise and orange mint

There are also other uses for this tool that are yet to be explored. I wonder how it will do for a small “bouquet garni” in a small beef stew? I also wonder how Coffee Beans will work, if they are course ground and stuffed inside with course ground hazelnuts? As you can tell, playing with this teabag may keep me occupied for some time.  It is definitely an item that I will be adding to my stocking stuffer list for Christmas this year! The bag comes in four colors: yellow (shown), green, red, and ivory.

If you have any ideas about what can be stuffed into the “Almigh’ Tea Bag”, or have had any experience with it, I would love to hear from you.  Please respond here or send an email to John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Herbal Harvest 2014

Every year I dry the herbs found in the herb garden for use during the winter months. You can see the technique used in the Drying Herbs post. I’m still using my American Harvest dehydrator to get the job done. However, since the time I wrote that original post, I’ve found a way to improve the potency of the resulting dried herbs. Each layer now has a solid sheet on the bottom. The solid sheet is supposedly designed for fruit leathers and for drying other liquids. The reduction in air flow means that the drying process takes longer, but it also means that fewer of the oils (and other useful elements) found in the herbs are wafted away by the air flow. As a compromise, you can always use the screens instead. The screens keep small particles from falling through, but they also reduce the air flow that robs your herbs of their flavor. The most important issue when drying herbs is to ensure you check their status often and keep the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees C). A higher setting will cause the oils in the herbs to dry out and make your herbs less effective as a result.

I’m also finding that keeping the herbs as whole as possible for storage prolongs their life. You can’t store the herbs very well without crumbling them a little, but keeping the leaves as large as possible appears to help retain the oils. Crumble the leaves or even grind the herb to powder immediately before you use it to maximize the flavor. The less you process the herb, the longer it’ll store.

This year’s herb garden didn’t do well in some areas, but it did exceptionally well in others. The lime, orange, and chocolate mints were all quite potent this year. I tried a few cups of tea to see how they’d brew and I ended up using less than normal. My personal favorite is the lime mint. The chocolate mint is suitable for use in tea, cooking, and jellies—lime and orange mints are characteristically used for tea.

Herb potency varies from year-to-year based on environmental factors, so it’s essential to consider potency as part of using the herbs. I’m thinking about trying to come up with some sort of rating system that I can put right on the package before I store the herb so I have some idea of how much to use later. As a contrast to these three mints, the grapefruit mint hardly tasted like mint at all. Given that it has proven hard to grow, I’m thinking about using the space for another kind of herb.

Sage also had a wonderful year this year. The plants grew fairly large and are robust in flavor. I grew both golden pineapple and common sage. The golden pineapple sage has larger leaves and a stronger taste. It also takes a lot longer to dry than the common sage. In most years, it appears that the common sage actually produces more output, but this year the golden pineapple sage was the winner.

The thyme and rosemary were disappointing this year, but still usable. I actually have three kinds of thyme: lime, lemon, and common (also known as English thyme). Of the three kinds, the lime has the strongest taste when used fresh, but the common works best for cooking. I find that the lemon has a subtle flavor, but can be hard to grow. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any lemon thyme this year, but I did get enough of the other two to make up for it. The only kind of rosemary I can grow is common rosemary. I’m thinking about trying again with some other varieties next year, but the rosemary definitely doesn’t overwinter here in Wisconsin (as contrasted to thyme, which overwinters just fine).

I’ve talked about lovage before (see the Loving that Lovage! post for details). This year I ended up with a whole pint of seeds that I’ll use for canning and for dishes like cole slaw. It was also a decent year for leaves that will end up in soups and other kinds of cooking where a strong celery flavor is desirable.

Weather, soil, and overall care of your herb garden all determine what kind of crop you get each year. Working with herbs can be quite fussy, but also quite rewarding. The quality of herb you get from your own garden will always exceed anything you buy in the store, so the effort is worth it when you want the best results from cooking. Let me know about your herb experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Drying Herbs

This is the time of year when Rebecca starts drying the herbs that have been growing since early spring. Most of them have gotten quite tall. I’ll discuss one of my favorites in this post, lime mint, but she’s working on a host of other herbs as well. Of course, the drying process starts by picking the herbs. She started with a relatively large bunch of lime mint like this:

DryHerbs01

In order to dry herbs, you need some means of drying them. Some people use their ovens, which can sometimes damage the herbs. It’s possible to dry the herbs in the sun, assuming you have a nice place to do it and the temperatures are high enough. We use an American Harvest dehydrator like the one shown here.

DryHerbs02

It’s such a handy device that we own three of them and sometimes all three of them are in use drying various items. Rebecca makes vegetable chips and apple chips for me to use as snacks (among other items). She has also made venison jerky for me using one of these devices. Two of our dehydrators have the top mounted heater and fan, while the third is bottom mounted. When it comes to drying herbs, there really isn’t any advantage over using one or the other.

In order to dry the herbs, the leaves are stripped from the stem and then placed in a fairly shallow pile in the dehydrator trays. It’s perfectly acceptable to put the younger tops in whole, but you don’t want the really stiff stems in with the rest of the herbs. Here’s how a typical tray will look.

DryHerbs03

After you’ve finished filling trays with the herbs, you’ll need to set the dehydrator for 105 degrees. It takes about 6 hours to dry the herbs. During that time, you’re treated to the most exotic smells. The entire house was filled with the smell of fresh mint this morningit’s indescribable. The stack of herbs you saw earlier filled nine trays like this:

DryHerbs04

You’ll want to take the lid off from time-to-time to check the herbs (don’t do it any more than about once an hour). About halfway through the process, you’ll want to rearrange the trays, placing the bottom ones year the top (and vice versa) to ensure the herbs dry evenly. The herbs will look like this about halfway through the process.

DryHerbs05

When the herbs are completely dry, they’ll be a dark green. They’ll also crumble quite easily. Don’t be too shocked by the amount of herb you get for the initial investment. Here’s the completed lime mint from that entire bunch that you saw earlier (about 1/3 of a quart).

DryHerbs06

There is nothing quite so nice as home dried herbs. You’ll use quite a bit less of them than the herbs you get from the store. Rebecca places any extra herbs in a sealable bag, uses a Food Saver to vacuum seal the bag, and then places it in the freezer. This approach keeps the herbs extra fresh. Growing and preserving your own herbs makes for amazing meals and drinks (think herbal teas of your own design). Wouldn’t it be nice to be nice to be able to use your own herbs whenever you wanted? Let me know what you think at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.