Herb Beverages Make A Social Splash!
Herb teas have been medicinally prominent since ancient times but the development and dominance of western medicine relegated “curin’ teas” to a position of folklore for many years. The “natural foods” movement of the 1960’s changed all that! There was a resurgence of interest in herb teas for good health and the industry was not found napping. In the 1970’s Celestial Seasonings seized the opportunity to meet the consumer’s outcry. They took it one step further by promoting the notion that an infusion of herb flowers, leaves, seeds, bark, roots or stems could be made not only to bolster your health but for pure pleasure! They packaged old and new combinations and this exposure to delightfully delicious herb tea blends gave rise to their broader use in a variety of beverages.
Happily this industrial manufacture of tea spilled onto the horticultural scene. Ardent herb gardeners were awakened to the flavor possibilities and wanted to cultivate their own tea herbs. Their demands were gladly met by growers and distributers anxious to bolster their businesses. Tea herb seeds and plants became more available along with myriad garden design ideas including teapots and cups. Garden catalogs are now full of such plans with the seeds and plants to complete the projects.
Let us look at some “social herb beverages” that have resulted from the creativity and curiosity of naturalist herb gardeners. You may be among these adventuresome folk who are willing and eager to try new taste sensations. These include teas, non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks that we imbibe for their delightful scent and flavor. A medicinal side effect is appreciated but not the goal.
Herb teas or the old fashioned term infusions are a very good place to start because they are the cup from which other herb beverages have over-flowed. An infusion is generally made with dried herbs while a brew with fresh herbs is called a tisane. I have included directions for a perfect cup of herb tea because the details really do make the difference between a mundane and to use today’s vernacular a “sweet” cup of tea. When boiling water for herb beverages there is a general “flavor rule of thumb”. Always start with fresh tasting water that has not been previously boiled. The drink will only be as good as the water you use and boiled water loses oxygen and its potential to add verve to the drink. Metal pots may taint the delicate taste of some herbs and are not generally recommended. I enjoy using the lovely glass teapot pictured because the beauty of the herbs is apparent and the flavor is never compromised.
The flavor categories to consider when making hot or cold herb teas are minty, fruity, and herby. If you are a mint lover there are many to fill that flavor bill. Aside from the many mint varieties there are herbs with a similar flavor such as basil, bee balm, costmary and anise hyssop. Fruit flavors range from the citrus tang of lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, rose hips, and coriander seeds to the tropical tastes of pineapple sage, rose petals, chamomile, and apple scented pelargoniums. The herby flavors of thyme, sage, rosemary and savory are more pungent and taste best when blended with herbs from the other two categories.
“Sun herb tea” is the easiest way to make a substancial quantity from fresh herbs. Place a large bundle of washed, bruised tea herbs into a large glass or plastic jar and fill with water. Put the lid on and allow it to sit in the bright sun for several hours. Strain and store the liquid in the refrigerator because it contains organic material that may deteriorate at room temperature. If your container has a spout you can serve directly from the refrigerator heating for hot tea and adding ice for cold.
Non alcoholic herb beverages are fun to create and always elicit an exuberant response. I have included my favorite recipes but don’t allow them to limit you. Let your sense of adventure along with your taste buds be your guide! Try some of your favorite herbs in these recipes and see where that takes you. Friends named one cooler after me because it is one I created and they relish.
I have included directions for herb soda because it is a rare and intriguing taste treat! The “short” method requires club soda or carbonated water be added to the basic herb and juice blend, while with the “long” process you have to add a little yeast. My favorite is a minted soda that I make with a variety of mints so it is a little different each time. Sometimes I add fruit juice and some recipe adjustments have to be made. More sugar must be added if you use sour fruit juices as from lemons or limes. I add about a third of a cup to the basic recipe but you may have to experiment to get the sweetness you prefer. If you add sweet juices you will want to decrease the sugar by about the same amount.
If you are a hot chocolate or flavored coffee lover as I am you will want to try some fresh mint in your next cup. Chocolate mint is a particular favorite but any variety will transform these drinks from common to delightful. I put about a tablespoon of chopped fresh mint for each cup in an infuser so the leaves can be easily removed for company. As for me, I savor the leaves as well.
Using herbs in alcoholic drinks should not be a great surprise to anyone because they have been used for years in such drinks as May wine, chartreuse and benedictine. Sweet woodruff was the first herb I experimented with because of its history of use in May wine blends. My hope was that this herb added to a cheap white wine might improve its flavor. It certainly did and has saved me a pretty penny over the years. I find that lemon verbena adds a citrus verve to inexpensive red wine as well. The key is to bruise a couple of herb sprigs with a fork and let them blend in a decanter of wine for an hour.
Fruited herb liqueurs are easy to make and the variations are endless. The fruits I have used are peaches, plums, apricots and citrus rind. The basic recipe combines the fruit or rind of ten large pieces of the fruit used, two cups of sugar and 1.75 liters of vodka. Some herbs that enhance fruit liqueurs are lemon verbena, mint, coriander seed, and lemon balm. Add a cup of the fresh herb of your choice or two tablespoons of coriander seeds to each batch. Put all the ingredients in a large tightly covered jar to sit at room temperature for five weeks. Turn or shake it well every couple of days. Strain out the herbs and put the liquid into sterilized bottles.
Drink accessories are the tidbits that add to the presentation and taste of herb beverages. There are ice cubes and rings filled with colorful herb flowers from borage, pineapple sage, roses, bachelor buttons, nasturtiums and many other edible flowers. There is herb sugar which can be used to sweeten drinks as well as pretty up the rim of fancy glasses. The dried herbs I have used are lavender, mint and rose petals. I simply blend them in a food processor with four times their weight in white sugar. Delicate, colorful, floating herb flowers are the crowning glory of any punch bowl.
Allow your childlike curiosity to lead you down the herb path to delicious and bountiful beverages. Concoct blends that you enjoy and let them make a social splash at your gatherings. Are you a member of the martini craze? The plants from the herby category will suit for the dry martinis while the fruity and minty will do for the sweet ones. Don’t neglect to add some of these delightful plants to sangria and punch as well. Your friends will be awestruck by the aroma, flavor, color and variety of the beverages you can create.
Edna’s Lemon Cooler
The LONG and SHORT of Minted Soda