by Robert Wemischner

The ancient Chinese knew tea first as a tonic and incorporated the leaves and the resulting infusions into cooking. They smoked duck over tea, added tea to broths, and stuffed fish with tea leaves before baking or roasting. Now, as more and more Americans are discovering the pleasures — and nutritional benefits — of drinking good tea, cutting-edge chefs and home cooks around the country are also bringing tea into their kitchens, discovering tea and food affinities in a variety of dishes.

The utmost in simplicity, tea is water and leaves. But when the water is pure and the leaves are premium quality, wonderful mouth-filling flavors can result from that potent combination. Tea, without calories, fat, sodium or cholesterol, is the perfect seasoning. From complex and bold to subtle and delicate, the flavor profiles of tea are amazingly diverse. Brewed in water or other liquids, tea can be a mellowing addition to a simple sauté of scallops, the basis for a bracing sauce or the basting liquid for a roasted chicken. A brisket of beef, long braised in tea, emerges tender, taking on a whole new dimension of dusky, deep flavor.

Tea, like vegetables, contains high levels of plant compounds called flavonoids, which are known to have antioxidant properties. (Studies show that halting the oxidation process in your body helps prevent the formation of cancer-inducing substances in body cells.) Unlike most Westerners, Asians have long enjoyed drinking tea regularly, and some studies have tied that habit to a reduced incidence of certain types of cancers and heart disease.

From the grassy freshness of a green tea (reputedly rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants) to the delicate savor of an oolong or the boldness of a black Yunnan or Keemun, tea offers a wondrously diverse palette of flavors that infuse easily into foods. All it takes is a good source of premium whole leaf tea (the bagged varieties are a pale imitation of the real thing), a timer to keep track of how long the leaves have been steeping and a thermometer to be sure you are not "burning" the leaves. Soon, you'll have a whole new way of enjoying tea.

tea, recipe, cookingCold Tea Noodles

Serves 4

A perfect warm-weather dish. Keep cool by cooking the noodles in tea the night before serving. The next day, assemble the short list of ingredients, and dinner is on the table.

Prep Time: About 15 minutes, plus overnight marinating
Cooking Time: 5 minutes

1 tablespoon Japanese Genmaicha green tea
1/2 pound Chinese water noodles or Japanese udon noodles
1 package firm tofu, well drained
1 package enoki mushrooms
1 package radish sprouts, washed and dried
1 bunch scallions, sliced into thin rounds
1 small bunch cilantro leaves
Light soy sauce, to taste
Japanese sesame oil, to taste
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese spice mixture, available at Asian markets) or freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Bring two quarts water to 180° and add tea. Steep for 3 minutes and pour through a sieve. Reserve liquid for cooking the noodles.

2. Bring the reserved tea to a boil and add noodles. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until noodles are al dente. Remove from heat and allow the noodles to remain in the liquid until it has cooled. Remove noodles from liquid and place in a bowl, covered, overnight in the refrigerator.

3. The next day, put tofu on a plate and cover it with several layers of paper towels. Press any excess moisture from it by placing a two-pound weight on top of the paper towels.

4. Remove weight and paper toweling after 15 minutes. Carefully slice the tofu into 1-inch cubes and set aside.

5. Place noodles on four plates. Scatter tofu and remaining ingredients over all. Serve with soy sauce, sesame oil and seasoning.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 478 Fat: 9g % fat calories: 16 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 83g Protein: 23g

Tea-Marinated Grilled Tofu Steaks with Chanterelle Mushrooms

Serves 6

High in protein and low in cholesterol, this dish marries two staples of the Asian pantry, tea and tofu.

Prep Time: 10 minutes, plus 1-1/2 hours for marinating tofu
Cooking Time: 10-15 minutes

1 14-ounce package firm tofu,
well drained
2 teaspoons Yunnan tea brewed in 1 quart sub-boiling water (if unavailable, substitute Darjeeling or English Breakfast)
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces fresh chanterelles or other mushrooms such as shiitake or oyster, cleaned, dried and sliced

1. Slice tofu horizontally into two rectangles of equal thickness. Wrap tofu in several paper towels. Set a two-pound weight on a sheet pan. Place this pan on the tofu for about a half-hour. Store tofu in the refrigerator until ready to cook.

2. Brew the tea and strain through a sieve. Pour the tea along with the soy, one crushed garlic clove, gingerroot and brown sugar in bowl large enough to accommodate the tofu without crushing it. Gently place the tofu in the liquid and allow to marinate at least one hour at cool room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator.

3. Remove tofu from sauce, reserving the marinade. Dry the tofu well with paper towels. Heat a heavy skillet until hot. Add the olive oil and carefully place the tofu into the pan. (It may spatter, so stand back.) Cook for 5 minutes, turn and cook for another 5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pan and keep warm while you cook the mushrooms.

4. Heat olive oil in heavy skillet, add remaining garlic and cook, stirring, so that the garlic doesn't burn. Add mushrooms and cook, moving the mushrooms gently, until golden brown. Remove from heat and reserve.

5. Reduce marinade in a heavy saucepan until thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. Add mushrooms and toss to coat with sauce. Season to taste.

6. Assembly: Place tofu on warmed plates, top with the sauce and mushrooms and drizzle any sauce remaining in the pan over the entire dish.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 103 Fat: 6g % fat calories: 56 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 4g Protein: 8g

Tea-Basted Roasted Chicken

Serves 8

The charm of this dish is its simplicity. What could be better than a chicken roasted to perfection, golden brown and crisp-skinned, when paired with a dusky, dark tea-based sauce? Serve this dish with wild rice, braised cabbage and mushrooms.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: Approximately 1 hour

1 quart water
1/2 cup Keemun tea leaves (if unavailable, substitute Darjeeling or English Breakfast)
1 2-inch piece gingerroot, peeled and sliced into coins
6 cloves garlic, peeled then crushed to release their aroma
1 cup vegetable stock (homemade or canned)
Olive oil to coat roasting pan and to brush on chicken before roasting
Freshly ground black pepper
1 2-3 pound whole roasting chicken, well washed and dried

To finish sauce:

1 teaspoon turbinado sugar, or to taste

1. Bring water to a boil. Add tea leaves and allow to infuse for 3 minutes. Strain liquid through fine-meshed sieve into a bowl and return to saucepan. Add ginger, garlic, and vegetable stock, and return liquid to a boil. Remove from heat, discard the solids through a sieve, and reserve liquid.

2. Preheat oven to 450š. Salt and pepper chicken inside and out. Place chicken into roasting pan, pour about 1/2 cup of the brewed tea over it and roast until juices run clear, basting with tea mixture every 20 minutes or so.

3. When done, skim fat from liquid in pan. Remove chicken to a cutting board, carve into 8 pieces, and place on a platter to keep warm. Reduce basting liquid to coating consistency, adjusting seasoning as desired (this dish tastes great with a generous addition of pepper). Add sugar to taste.

4. Strain sauce in roasting pan through a fine-meshed sieve and place in a heated sauceboat. Serve immediately. We suggest such accompaniments as wild rice, sautéed portobello mushrooms and curly (Savoy) cabbage, as desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 164 Fat: 6g % fat calories: 36 Cholesterol: 75mg Carbohydrate: 1g Protein: 24g

Green Tea Poached Asian Pears with Pistachio Cream Sauce

Serves 4

This refreshing dessert, edged with a hint of mint, works year round and provides a touch of luxury to a simple menu. Its complex taste belies its simple method of preparation.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15-20 minutes, plus chilling time

4 unblemished Asian pears
1 cup turbinado sugar
2 cups freshly brewed green tea (e.g. Dragonwell)
1 2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced into thin coins
Peel of half a lemon
1 large sprig of fresh mint
Garnish: fresh mint leaves, if desired

1. Peel the pears and core with a corer or a small paring knife, being sure to remove the tart center core area of each. Place the sugar, green tea, gingerroot, lemon peel and mint in a medium size saucepan large enough to hold the four pears in a single layer.

2. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to just under a boil, or until the sugar is fully dissolved. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the peeled and cored pears. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. The pears will remain firm. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate, covered. Meanwhile, make the Pistachio Cream Sauce.

Pistachio Cream Sauce:

1 cup nonfat plain yogurt, well drained
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1/2 cup shelled, skinned, coarsely chopped natural pistachio nuts

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, buttermilk and maple syrup. Add nuts and store mixture in refrigerator until your guests are ready to eat.

2. Assembly: Remove pears from poaching liquid, drain well and place one each in four chilled goblets. Mask with the sauce and serve immediately, garnished with fresh mint leaves, if desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 348 Fat: 9g % fat calories: 21 Cholesterol: 2mg Carbohydrate: 66g Protein: 7g

Robert Wemischner is the author of The Vivid Flavors Cookbook (Lowell House) and co-author, with Diana Rosen, of the forthcoming Cooking with Tea (Tuttle-Periplus, fall 2000).

Photography by Rita Maas