Growing your own herbs, so you can harvest just what you want when you want it, is one of life’s most inexpensive luxuries. The plants flourish without too much attention, and even if you don’t have a garden, a pot or two will be very happy on a sunny windowsill. Just a few sprigs are all you need to brighten a marinade, sauce or platter of sliced tomatoes.
But it’s a shame to stop there, especially this time of year, when we all crave cool antidotes for summer’s first hot days. And given that June is National Iced Tea Month, using herbs in that way, whether on their own or added to your favorite brand of ordinary black or green tea, provides a lighter, fresher and caffeine- and additive-free alternative to soft drinks or commercial ready-to-drink brews.
When it comes to the term “herbal tea,” by the way, it’s worth noting that only beverages made from the cured leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant native to India and China, are true teas. Water infused with fresh or dried herbs is more correctly called a tisane, although the French word sounds a little fussy for something so easy and straightforward.
Whatever you want to call it, if your idea of the stuff starts and stops with concoctions to lull you to sleep, then there’s a whole new world to discover. Even though herbal infusions were traditionally consumed for their medicinal benefits, they’re also just plain delicious and a great way to work new flavors into your culinary repertoire.
Among the 300 or so varieties of certified organic herbs and other plants that Chris Gaipa grows at Garden Fusion in East Marion, any number of them are tea-worthy. One staff favorite is lemon verbena. Gaipa said, “It’s got a super-high content of essential oils. You can use it fresh, and when dried, it retains its scent more than any other herb.”
Lemon verbena, which came to Europe from South America in the late 18th century as a perfume plant, has a vibrant lemony aroma and flavor, without the tartness of the fruit. It plays especially well with mint. Spearmint is sweeter and more nuanced than peppermint, but why stop there? Gaipa has a range of rare cultivars, including orange, grapefruit and variegated pineapple mints.
“Their names aren’t just wordplay,” he explained. “Their smells are actually accurate.”
His idea of livening up a glass of ice water with a sprig or two of orange mint is a terrific aprés-gardening pick-me-up.
Other herbs that will keep their fragrance and flavor in an infusion include anise, hyssop, bee balm, chamomile, holy basil, lavender, lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon thyme, pineapple sage and even scented geraniums. The fun of making herbal teas is experimenting with a few leaves of this or that.
“There is so much to play with and explore,” said Courtney Hall, certified herbalist at Sang Lee Farms in Peconic. One of her go-to herbs is lemon balm. “It relaxes the central nervous system and is a mild anti-inflammatory,” she noted. “On a hot, sunny afternoon it can really cool you down.”
This herb’s lemon-mint flavor and fragrance are subtle and delicate, not bracing like lemon verbena, so use generous amounts in an infusion.
Hall is also a proponent of using fresh lavender leaves in drinks; they’re not as potent as the flowers, and won’t make you think you’re sipping soap.
“The variety matters, too,” she said. “Common lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is the original lavender of Provence and is softer on the palate than other varieties.” That’s because it has a lower camphor content, thus very little bitterness in the aftertaste.
Melissa Henrey, founder of The Farm Beyond in Southold, cultivates a number of commonly foraged plants that expand the herb world. In addition to hyssop (“Flavor is reminiscent of root beer”) and sweet woodruff (“Add a lemon wedge and a 1/4 cup of fraises des bois [wild strawberries] wrapped in cheesecloth for a next-level experience”), she makes tisanes from wild strawberry leaf (“Flavor is mild, fruity and totally delightful. Use only leaves in perfect condition, picked fresh”) and pineapple weed, aka wild chamomile (“Delicious light pineapple flavor. Use freshly picked flower buds”). Esoteric ingredients, perhaps, but available now at the farm, right here on the North Fork.
Herbal infusions are an easy way to connect garden and kitchen — and a beautiful one, too. Hall likes to garnish a pitcher of herbal tea with nasturtium blossoms. “You could also use borage, calendula, or other edible flowers,” she said, adding a caveat to avoid plants that have been sprayed with pesticides.
A glass teapot or pitcher is by no means essential, but will show off the brilliant green leaves of the herbs. And I have my eye on one of the sleek travel infusers stocked by Tea & Tchotchkes in Greenport. My kind of go-cup.
TIP FOR TEA
It’s so easy to make herbal infusions that you barely need a recipe. You can, for instance, add a few sprigs to the pot when brewing ordinary black or green tea, then let the mixture cool before pouring it through a strainer over ice. When it comes to all-herbal infusions, there are a couple of different methods.
Courtney Hall prefers cold-water infusions or the “sun tea” method for extracting essential oils and nutrients from leaves or flowers.
“Have the kids go out to the garden and cut a bunch of lemon balm and mint for sun tea,” she suggested. “Put in a jug and let it sit in the sun.” Taste it every hour or so, until it’s how you like it, she added, and sweeten with a little stevia if desired. If there’s no time to plan ahead, she said, “You can use hot water, but let it come to a boil and then let it sit for two to five minutes before pouring it over.”
Melissa Henrey concurs. “Water that’s too hot will cook the leaves, which will make the tisane taste like ‘plant,’ ” she explained in a recent email. She suggests taking handfuls of the freshest leaves and steeping them in near-boiling water for five minutes.
“The best thing to do is keep a teaspoon handy and just taste it after three or four minutes,” advised Shelter Island native Amy Zavatto, author of “Forager’s Cocktails.”
“Adding fresh citrus peel into the mix can add a nice, bright quality,” she said. “And always wash your fresh herbs! Even if they’re from your own garden or pots.”
When it comes to serving, don’t add ice to the pitcher or it will dilute the tea. Add the ice to the serving glasses instead. If you want to make decorative ice cubes, put an herb leaf, berry or edible flower into each compartment of ice cube trays, fill halfway with water and freeze. Then fill the trays to the top and freeze again until frozen solid.