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Stay cool by throwing an iced tea party

C.W. Cameron
Set up an inviting iced tea party by brewing the perfect iced tea and preparing a variety of savory tea sandwiches, Recipes, back page.

We claim the title of champion iced tea drinkers proudly here in the South. Many of us drink iced tea from dawn to dusk and swear by its ability to make the most miserable August day bearable.

Outside my home office window is a shrub about 4 feet high. In the fall, it's dotted with 1-inch wide white blossoms. A close look at the five cupped petals and golden yellow stamens reveals their similarity to the blossoms of the shrub's better-known cousins, Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua.

In the air-conditioned comfort of my office, I sip from a glass of mint-infused iced tea and think about the plant outside my window. It's Camellia sinensis, and its leaves are the source of black, green and oolong teas. I wanted to know more about how tea is made, so I turned to William Barclay Hall, founder and partner along with Bigelow Tea in the Charleston Tea Plantation.

Hall farms tea on 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island, just south of Charleston, S.C. The acreage was once an experimental tea farm for the Lipton tea company. Hall bought the property in 1987 and in 2003 began producing and marketing the only tea grown in America.

He's a third-generation tea taster, a profession that requires a four-year apprenticeship spent tasting thousands and thousands of cups of tea. "Tea is one of the few products in the world bought and sold strictly on taste alone. There's no chemical way to determine the quality of tea, so tea tasters determine how much the tea is worth," Hall said.

Hall traveled the world in his tea-tasting career, including time spent in Argentina, a country that he says supplies more tea to America than any other country in the world. He and his father eventually moved to the States, and after studying the history of tea growing in America, Hall ended up with his farm.

Turning the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant into packaged tea is a complex dance. At the farm, tea leaves are harvested from early May until the end of October. What happens to the leaves once they're harvested is what determines if they will end up as green, black or oolong tea.

The first step is always to begin to reduce the moisture from the leaves. Then the leaves are bruised and ground to expose more surface to air and begin the process of oxidation. Depending on how much oxidation happens, the tea can become either oolong or black. For green tea, the leaves are ground and dried before they can begin to oxidize.

"The Tea Association of the United States of America says 80 percent of all the tea consumed in America is iced. I say that in the South, that figure goes up to about 99 percent," Hall said with a laugh and he went on to say that Southerners like their iced tea brewed. No instant tea for us.

Hall has a few rules for making full-flavored iced tea. "Always start with fresh, cold water. It contains more oxygen than hot water from your tap. More oxygen enhances the flavor of the tea. Bring the water to a full rolling boil and then pour it directly on the tea, whether it's loose or in bags. You need that burst of hot water hitting the tea to fully open the leaves," he said. "Then steep the tea for as long as it takes to get to the strength you like." Hall's final rule for iced tea: serve it within 24 hours of making it.

If you're interested in checking out America's only home-grown tea, it's available at Whole Foods Market.

Put down that bottled tea. There's simply no excuse not to make your own. Then celebrate the bounty of summer vegetables by serving simple tea sandwiches made with tomatoes, cucumbers, Vidalia onions and basil. Add our pot de crème and cookies, which can both be made ahead of time, for an easy summer lunch or supper.

Perfect Iced Tea

Tea is infinitely customizable. Use whatever tea you like — green, black, oolong, herbal, regular or decaffeinated. Making a concentrated tea solution as described here saves room in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, add 3 parts cold water to 1 part concentrate, sweeten as desired, drop in your ice cubes and you've got a perfect glass of iced tea. In his book "Iced Tea" (Harvard Common Press, $12.95), author Fred Thompson suggests adding 1/8 teaspoon baking soda when brewing the tea to soften its tannins. When we tested this recipe both with and without baking soda, we had mixed results. Some of us thought we could tell the difference. For others, the teas tasted exactly the same. Give it a try and see what you think.

8 cups water, divided

6 regular-size tea bags

In a small saucepan or tea kettle, bring 2 cups water to a boil, about 5 minutes. Place tea bags in a heat-proof glass container. Pour boiling water over tea bags and let steep for 15 minutes, or until desired strength is reached.

Remove the tea bags, being careful not to squeeze them. This is your tea concentrate. Discard tea bags. Allow tea to cool completely. At this point, you can refrigerate for up to one day.

When ready to serve, pour concentrate into a two-quart pitcher and add 6 cups cold water. Serve over ice.

Green tea, ginger and honey variation: Use green tea bags and add 1/2 cup honey and a chopped 1-inch piece of fresh ginger when steeping. Strain out the ginger before storing and serving. Makes 8 cups.

Summer Vegetable Tea Sandwiches

The sandwiches we made were Vidalia onion with herbed mayonnaise and a parsley garnish; tomato with pesto and herbed mayonnaise; and cucumber with vegetable cream cheese and herbed mayonnaise. You need sandwich spread on both pieces of bread to ensure that the contents of the sandwich will stay together. The Vidalia onion sandwiches were the surprise hit among all who tasted them. You can assemble these sandwiches with store-bought spreads, but making your own is the quickest part of the job.

2 slices thinly sliced whole wheat or white sandwich bread

For sandwich spread: Pesto, Vegetable Cream Cheese or Herbed Mayonnaise, see recipes

For filling: Thinly sliced cucumber, Vidalia onion or tomato

Chopped parsley, for garnish if desired

Arrange bread slices on working surface. Spread one side of each slice with the sandwich spread of your choice, then arrange filling in a thin layer on one slice. Top with second slice and press lightly. Cut into triangles, rectangles or squares as desired. For parsley garnish, thinly coat side of sandwich with mayonnaise and dip into chopped parsley. If not serving immediately, arrange on plate and cover with very lightly dampened paper towel. Wrap securely with plastic wrap and refrigerate. May be made up to 3 hours in advance.

Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup olive oil

1 garlic clove

In the bowl of a food processor, process basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil and garlic until smooth. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. May be stored in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Makes 1 cup.

Vegetable Cream Cheese

The vegetables you add to this spread are totally up to you. Consider these as suggestions.

1 small carrot, chopped

1 small cucumber, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese, room temperature

1 tsp. lemon juice

1/2 tsp. horseradish, optional

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse carrot, cucumber, celery, onion and bell pepper until finely chopped. Add cream cheese, lemon juice and horseradish and pulse until just combined, about 10 seconds. Taste for seasoning. Store in refrigerator up to 3 days. Makes 2 cups.

Herbed Mayonnaise

Homemade mayonnaise could not be easier if you own a food processor. It's almost as quick as reaching into the refrigerator for a jar of store-bought. But note that this recipe uses uncooked egg yolks. Raw eggs can present a health hazard for women who are pregnant, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. You can buy pasteurized eggs at many grocery stores and use them instead.

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, parsley or chives

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 cup vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

In the bowl of a food processor, combine yolks, herbs, lemon juice and mustard. Process until puréed. While machine is running, slowly pour in vegetable oil. Mixture will emulsify in 30 seconds. If not using right away, refrigerate. Can be made up to 3 days in advance. Makes 1 cup.

Earl Grey Pots de Crème

These rich little custards could be flavored with any tea, but Earl Grey, with its lightly floral fragrance, hits just the right note.

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

2 Tbsp. Earl Grey tea leaves (about 5 teabags)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 egg yolks

1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest

Pinch salt

In a small saucepan, bring cream and milk just to a boil over medium heat. Turn off heat and stir in tea. Cover and let steep for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Arrange six 4-ounce oven-proof ramekins in a roasting pan and add water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

In a medium bowl, whisk together sugar, egg yolks, lemon zest and salt. Strain infused cream into the egg yolks. Extract as much liquid as possible without pressing on tea leaves. Discard tea. Whisk thoroughly to combine.

Divide custard mixture among cups. Cover pan tightly with foil, poking a few holes to let steam escape. Carefully transfer pan to oven. Bake until custards are set but still slightly wobbly in centers, about 30 minutes. Transfer ramekins to a wire rack to cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Serves 6.

— Adapted from a recipe at MarthaStewart.com

Pecan Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. salt

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter and sugar until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add flour and salt and beat until just combined. Remove bowl from mixer and stir in pecans. (You can make the dough ahead of time and refrigerate for up to two days. Bring the dough to room temperature before baking.)

Using a 1-inch scoop, arrange balls of dough on cookie sheet. They will not spread. Bake 10 minutes or until lightly browned at the edges. Move to a wire rack to cool. These are best if eaten within 2 days. Makes 32 cookies.

— Adapted from a recipe in "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion" (The Countryman Press, $35)