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Try tea as a cooking ingredient to add clean, subtle flavor

You know all about drinking tea, with or without a pinkie in the air. But what you may not know is that more and more people are cooking with tea.

"It’s no longer something that collects dust in the pantry," said Megan Romano, executive pastry chef at Aureole at Mandalay Bay. "There’s a renewed interest in using tea as a food seasoning, as you would pepper or salt or lemon zest."

Romano likes to use teas produced by T (available at www.TeaLeaves.com) — so much so that she’s among the chefs featured on its website — because the products are "very fragrant, very clean, very fresh," she said.

But you can even use supermarket fare to experiment with cooking with tea. Cook’s Country, a publication of Cook’s Illustrated, recently featured a recipe for kalua pork, a Hawaiian dish traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and smoked in a pit, using the contents of green tea bags as a rub to mimic the flavor of the banana leaves (recipe follows).

Gianni Santin, executive pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental in CityCenter, sometimes uses matcha, finely powdered green tea popular in Japan, to make the Matcha Green Tea Opera Cake (recipe follows) that’s served in the hotel’s Tea Lounge.

Santin said he has been experimenting with tea in foods for a few years, "probably more so with our Tea Lounge and the emphasis we have on teas." He, too, likes T teas, and created a dessert based on their Mulling Spice blend.

"It’s a holiday blend — fruits, cranberry, apple, cinnamon, cloves; spices you would find in a mulled wine," Santin said. "I took inspiration from that" for his Mozen Bistro Holiday Delight (recipe follows), the crowning touch of which is a cloud of mandarin-orange tea "air."

"It hides the pistachio semi-freddo," he said. "You don’t know what you’re getting until you get through the foam."

Romano also likes to use the Eros tea that’s served as a beverage at Aureole.

"It’s blood orange and vanilla bean; you can really pick out the flavors," she said, "which makes it fun as a chef. I’ve done that in many things — shortbread, poundcake, steeped in heavy cream for ganache filling for chocolate bonbons. I just crumble them up and put them in. You don’t even have to steep them" in most cases.

The resulting flavor is "subtle with a little bit of depth," she said.

Romano said one thing she likes about using teas is that she can achieve a better flavor than she could using extracts or artificial flavors.

"It’s a cleaner, more subtle flavor," she said. "You may not pull it out immediately, but given time to savor the dish, the flavors come out pretty well. It’s not like you go out of your way to create the dish around the tea. The tea just gives it more interest."

Romano said while the use of tea in foods is becoming more popular, she has been doing it for years.

"We developed our chocolate program maybe eight or nine years ago, and really started at that point looking for nicer, more wholesome ways of adding flavor," she said. "Chocolate is a pretty intense medium; to get flavor through that medium, a lot of times you resort to perfumy extracts. Teas became the alternative, so it kind of grew from that."

Santin said he thinks such use of tea is even more healthful.

"In my chocolate fillings, instead of using cream as the base, I’m going to a different liquid," he said. "You can add a different layer of flavor to the chocolate. I just find different nuances. I find it more interesting, more intriguing."

And some restaurants are preparing beverages with tea — but not in the way you might expect.

"A lot of houses are starting to produce tea-infused vodka," said Jeffery Metcalf, general manager of Sage at Aria. Some of them, he noted, tend to be a little heavy, so Sage employees make their own in-house with Death’s Door vodka and venerable Earl Grey tea to create the Tea Rose (recipe follows).

"It’s kind of similar to a fragrant version of an Arnold Palmer," Metcalf said. "It’s been on our list from Day One, one of the cocktails that’s the heart of our cocktail program and definitely a guest favorite."

WARM AND SPICY AUTUMN APPLE SOUP WITH CARAMEL PASTRY STICKS

For soup:

5 cups water

1/2 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons Calvados

1/2 teaspoon mulling spices

3 large Gala apples

1/2 teaspoon Eros tea leaves (available at www.TeaLeaves.com)

Salted caramel pastry sticks (recipe follows)

Honey caramel sauce (recipe follows) or purchased caramel sauce

Place first seven ingredients in a sauce pot and heat. Peel and roughly chop apples and add to the pot. Add additional water, if needed, to cover the apples. Cook the mixture on medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the apples are tender and translucent. Puree the mixture in a blender until smooth and pass through a sieve. Place the tea leaves in a cheesecloth pouch and drop into the hot soup, infusing with flavor until the soup has cooled.

To make salted caramel pastry sticks: Use a dough cutter to cut 1 sheet of puff pastry into 1/4-inch strips. Twist strips to form ropes and set on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, approximately 10 minutes. Remove from oven and brush with 1/4 cup caramel sauce and 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel. Return to oven for 3 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool.

To make honey caramel sauce: Place 4 ounces honey, 2 ounces invert sugar and 4 ounces granulated sugar in a sauce pot and cook on high heat until liquid begins to simmer. Add 1 cup heavy cream and a pinch of salt. Cook until mixture reaches 300 degrees (about 15 minutes). For immediate use, pour into a heat-proof container. For later use, pour into a bowl set inside a stainless-steel bowl full of ice to retain vibrant amber color.

Makes 6 cups (or 12 4-ounce servings)

— Recipe from Megan Romano, Aureole

MATCHA GREEN TEA OPERA CAKE

Matcha buttercream:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

Pinch of kosher salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

3 tablespoons matcha (green-tea powder)

¼ cup heavy cream

Green tea ganache:

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons loose-leaf green tea

2 cups 72 percent dark chocolate chunks

Almond joconde (spongecake):

1 cup almond flour

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup lightly beaten whole eggs

2 ounces melted unsalted butter

4 ounces egg whites

4 tablespoons granulated sugar

Additional matcha, for garnish

Cocoa powder, for garnish

To make the matcha buttercream, using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, salt and vanilla at medium speed.

Sift the sugar and matcha together and add to the butter. Mix on low speed until the sugar mixture is incorporated, then continue to mix on medium speed for 5 minutes. Add the cream on low speed until incorporated, then continue to mix on medium speed until the buttercream is lighter, creamier and smooth. Set aside.

To make the green-tea ganache, bring the heavy cream to a simmer with the green tea. Cover and set aside to steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Strain out the tea and bring the cream to a boil, then pour over the chocolate chunks and stir until thoroughly mixed into a ganache. Set aside at room temperature. It will thicken as it cools into a spreadable chocolate filling.

To make the almond joconde, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix the almond flour, confectioners’ sugar and all-purpose flour in a mixing bowl. Add eggs and mix well, then pour in melted butter and mix.

In a separate mixing bowl, whip the egg whites on medium speed, slowing adding the sugar, making a French meringue. When firm peaks are formed, gently fold into the batter in two to three stages until well-mixed. Spread onto a lined 12-by-16-inch sheet pan and bake for 4 to 6 minutes.

For assembly, cut the joconde widthwise into thirds, approximately 5-by-12 inches. Spread one piece evenly with a ¼-inch layer of the ganache and chill until set. Next spread a ¼-inch layer of buttercream onto the ganache layer. Place the second sheet of joconde on top of the buttercream. Repeat previous steps. To finish, spread a thin layer of buttercream on top and lightly dust with matcha and cocoa powder for decoration.

— Recipe from Gianni Santin, Mandarin Oriental

MOZEN BISTRO HOLIDAY DELIGHT

(Mulled tea and cranberry gelee with pistachio semi-freddo and mandarin orange tea air)

For gelee:

1 cup distilled water

2 tablespoons T brand Mulling Spice Blend tea (available in the Mandarin Oriental Tea Lounge)

1 tablespoon (½ ounce) gelatin powder

1 cup cranberry juice

For the semi-freddo:

¾ cup heavy cream

3 egg yolks

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 cup pistachio paste (available at International Marketplace)

For mandarin-orange tea air:

2 cups distilled water

2 tablespoons mandarin-orange tea

Zest of 1 mandarin orange

1 teaspoon soy lecithin powder (available in health-food stores)

For gelee, boil the water and pour over the Mulling Spice Blend; let steep for 5 minutes. Bloom the gelatin with the cranberry juice and bring to a simmer to dissolve the gelatin thoroughly. Strain the tea blend into the cranberry juice and stir together. Pour into a shallow plate or bowl.

For the semi-freddo, whisk the heavy cream to soft peaks and set aside in the refrigerator. Using a hand mixer, whip the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg-yolk mixture into the softened pistachio paste in three parts, until thoroughly blended. Using the same folding technique, fold in the whipped cream until well mixed, taking care not to overmix.

Pour the mixture into eight small muffin cups, approximately 2 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep, and freeze overnight. When frozen solid, remove from the muffin cups and refreeze until it’s time to serve.

For the Mandarin Orange tea air, boil the water and pour over the Mandarin Orange tea and the zest and let it steep for 5 minutes. Strain and refrigerate. When chilled, stir in 1 teaspoon of soy lecithin powder and, using a large bowl, agitate with a stick blender to foam and increase the volume of the tea. (The trick is to tilt the blender so that it breaks the surface of the liquid and foams the tea to triple its volume.)

To serve, place the frozen semi-freddo in the center of the plate on top of the mulled gelee. Scoop only the foamed air of the mandarin orange tea (the liquid will remain on the bottom) and place a generous large scoop on top of the semi-freddo. Serve immediately.

Serves 8.

— Recipe from Gianni Santin, Mandarin Oriental

TANGERINE EROS CREME BRULEE

4 cups heavy cream

4 cups milk

12 ounces sugar

Pinch salt

Zest of 1 tangerine

1 cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur

1 ounce Eros tea leaves (available at www.TeaLeaves.com)

18 egg yolks

Granulated sugar for caramelizing

Preheat oven to 275 degrees (low fan if using a convection oven).

Place ramekins in a shallow, stainless-steel pan for baking (or use aluminum or glass, although glass will make creme brulees cook faster).

Heat cream, milk, sugar, salt, tangerine zest, cinnamon stick and liqueur to scalding. Whisk tea into hot liquid and let steep while cooling with pan set in a large bowl of ice. Whisk cooled liquid into yolks and strain through a fine-meshed strainer.

Pour custard into 8-ounce porcelain ramekins, filling three-quarters full. Place in stainless steel pan. Pop air bubbles on top of custard with a kitchen torch. Pour 1 inch of water in bottom of pan. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Rotate pan in oven and continue baking for another 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place on another tray and cool in the refrigerator. To serve, generously sprinkle tops with granulated sugar and caramelize with kitchen torch.

Makes 10 8-ounce ramekins.

— Recipe from Megan Romano, Aureole

TEA ROSE

1½ ounces tea-infused vodka

¾ ounce St. Germain elderflower liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

10 drops rose water

3 pine nuts for garnish

Combine all ingredients (except garnish), shake lightly over ice, strain into a martini glass and garnish with pine nuts.

Serves 1.

— Recipe from Sage

HAWAIIAN-STYLE SMOKED PORK

3 tablespoons green tea (from 10 to 15 tea bags)

4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons pepper

1 (4- to 5-pound) boneless pork butt, trimmed

1 (13-by-9-inch) disposable aluminum roasting pan

6 cups mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained

Combine tea, salt, sugar and pepper in bowl. Pat pork dry with paper towels and rub with tea mixture. Wrap meat tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. Place pork in pan and cover pan loosely with aluminum foil. Poke about 20 one-quarter -inch holes in foil. Using a large sheet of heavy-duty foil, wrap 2 cups soaked chips into a packet and cut several vent holes in top. Make two more packets with additional foil and remaining 4 cups of chips.

For a charcoal grill: Open bottom vent halfway. Light large chimney starter three-quarters full with charcoal briquettes (4½ quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into steeply banked pile against side of grill. Place wood chip packets on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.

For a gas grill: Place wood chip packets over primary burner. Turn all burners to high, cover and heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 15 minutes. Turn primary burner to medium-high and turn off other burner(s). (Adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature at 300 degrees.)

Place pan on cool part of grill. Cover (positioning lid vent over meat if using charcoal) and cook for 2 hours. During last 20 minutes of grilling, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees.

Remove pan from grill. Cover pan tightly with new sheet of foil, transfer to oven, and bake until tender and fork inserted into meat meets no resistance, 2 to 3 hours. Let pork rest, covered, for 30 minutes. Unwrap and, when meat is cool enough to handle, shred into bite-size pieces, discarding fat. Strain contents of pan through fine-mesh strainer into fat separator. Let liquid settle, then return ¼ cup defatted pan juices to pork. Serve. (Pork can be refrigerated for as long as three days.)

Serves 8.

— Recipe from Cook’s Country

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.

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