Iced tea, fennel version

When I first made this tea, I was still living in D.C., and for the second year in a row, it was around 90 degrees in May. The crappy portable air conditioners in our little 1930s, very poorly insulated, rented bungalow couldn't keep up with the demand, and the temperature in the house stayed in the mid to high 80s until nearly October. A breeze could make the back patio comfortable in the evening, as long as you had a free hand to whack away the mosquitoes, but by 8 am the next morning, leaving the house felt like walking into a steam bath.

At the time, we had loads of beautiful fennel at the market, and I was trying to give those beautiful, spruce-colored fronds some purpose. I'd been candying the stems, using the stems and fronds to infuse a syrup (good with prosecco), adding the fronds to salsa verde and pesto. But using them to infuse iced tea was the keeper.

I didn't drink a lot of iced tea growing up, but when we drove down from our house in Georgia to visit my grandparents at their farm in North Florida, tea was always one possible answer for "what are you having to drink with dinner?" My grandmother spared no sugar in that tea, and yet it never tasted too sweet to me.

Cut forward many years, and while I still have a taste for ultra-sweet tea, in things sugary I aim for moderation. Steeping fennel fronds in freshly brewed black tea creates an illusion of sweetness without quite so much added sugar, and the fragrant anise flavor harmonizes beautifully with the tea's woodsy character. As far as non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers go, it's enchanting.

That sweltering D.C. summer I made this tea as long as the fennel lasted, through early summer, then picked up again when it came back in the early fall. A peculiarity of the Pacific Northwest is that in the warmest, driest part of the year, when the air feels hot enough to keep a pitcher of tea on hand, fennel is still coming out of the ground and looking fine. In other parts of the country, where the fennel harvest reasonably retires for, at the least, July and August, finding the fronds for this tea may be a shoulder season excursion (or a supermarket one, although supermarket fennel tends to be lacking in the luxuriously long, fragrant fronds that give this tea its flavor).

An alternative, though I haven't tried it, might be to infuse a large batch of simple syrup with the fronds when you have them, using it to sweeten the tea in the heat of the season when the cooler-season crops have taken their seasonal bow.

Then again, a hot day is no prerequisite for making (or drinking) this tea. Just keep it chilled, hold the ice.

Fennel tea

8 cups water

1/2 cup loose-leaf black tea (I use Reishi's Ceylon black tea)

2 fennel stems with ample fronds, cut into thirds

1/2 cup sugar

In a large pot, bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add tea, steep 4–5 minutes (or according to package instructions). Avoid oversteeping, which can create a not-so-refreshing bitterness. Drain the tea through a fine-mesh strainer into another large pot or bowl. Add fennel fronds and steep 20–30 minutes. Remove fronds, strain tea again through a fine-mesh strainer (into the original pot or a glass storage jar) and add sugar, stirring to dissolve thoroughly. Cool completely, then serve over ice. Tea will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

 

summer staple

When we moved to Seattle two years ago from the mid-Atlantic, the biggest adjustment for me, beyond the expected dissonance of losing close contact with family and friends, was learning the local growing seasons. My internal clock is tied to what's coming out of the ground. So after years of growing up and living in the Southeast, then the Mid-Atlantic, whose growing season is only marginally different from its zones farther South, my sense of time of year was rather fixed on what grows when in those places. I recognized March and April for its bitter chicories, June for its first tomatoes, and July for its heaps of peppers and eggplant, November for its brassicas and leaves in every shade of green.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, in the middle of July, I am recalibrating. Even with this year's atypically hot weather, which has made our lush region feel like California, July means fava beans, broccoli, spring peas, escarole and radicchio, tiny artichokes, the first zucchini with their blossoms. This is both a luxury—we'll have those zucchini blossoms into September, and the artichokes and the favas for nearly as long—and disorienting. Around this time back East, we'd be making a lot of panzanella—day-old bread, torn into ruffled pieces, jumbled with a cut mix of tomatoes, onions, and herbs, soaked through with vinaigrette. The stale bread takes up the dressing like a sponge, its texture turning springy, juicy, a little chewy, like a sultry answer to a crouton. I know of few better canvasses for good tomatoes, and their acidity, right about now, is what I crave.

We are still a few weeks out from solid tomato season here, so in the meantime, I am compromising with what is here a more seasonally appropriate bread salad, using small, tender favas, the last of the garlic scapes, the first cherry tomatoes trickling in, and plenty of deep green parsley, mint, and purslane. Using the same approach—day-old, untoasted bread plus vinaigrette—keeps the texture succulent, and the cherry tomatoes, used sparingly, provide enough extra acidity to bring me into the right season. Feel free to vary the ingredients below as you see fit. The idea, in part, is to illustrate how very versatile bread salad can be. Use whatever produce or herbs you have or love in combination, whatever bread you have on hand—provided it has a good sturdy crumb and isn't too fresh.

Bread Salad with Favas, Garlic Scapes, Sungold Tomatoes, and Herbs

5 ounces day-old bread, tough crust removed

3/4 pound fava beans, blanched for 3-4 minutes, flushed with cool water, and slipped from their skins

2 garlic scapes, thinly sliced, blanched for 15 seconds and flushed with cool water

1 1/3 cups purslane

1/2 small red onion, minced

3-4 large sprigs parsley, chopped

1-2 sprigs mint, cut into fine slivers

heaping 1/4 pint sungold tomatoes (about 10), quartered

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

sea salt and black pepper to taste

Tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Alternately, you could use a knife, but I prefer the craggy uneveness that tearing produces. Combine the bread in a large bowl with the purslane, scapes, favas, onion, herbs, and tomatoes. Whisk the olive oil and vinegar until emulsified and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the bread and vegetables and, using your hands, combine thoroughly. Serve immediately or rest for 5-10 minutes beforehand.

Panzanella

For those of you already flush with tomatoes this summer. The measurements here, of course, are a guide—use more tomatoes, if you prefer, or less onion. Add capers—I usually do—or thinly sliced garlic scapes, or additional herbs, like marjoram. Sub sherry vinegar for red wine. As long as your ingredients are top-notch, it will be stellar.

10 ounces day-old bread, tough crust removed

1 1/4 pounds tomatoes, preferably a mix of heirlooms and cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

1/4 cup chopped parsley

3 T. finely slivered basil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 T. plus 2 t. red wine vinegar

sea salt and pepper to taste

Roughly tear the bread into bite-sized pieces. Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves or quarters, and cut the larger tomatoes into wedges or chunks. Combine the tomatoes in a large bowl with the onion, basil, and parsley. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the bread to the bowl with the tomatoes; then pour the vinaigrette over all. Use your hands to toss gently, making sure the bread is well coated with the dressing. Rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 4