Summer’s here and there’s no better time to make use of the outdoor grill to smoke foods over tea. Although on a cold winter’s night, it’s nice to perfume the house with the enticing aroma of fragrant tea-scented smoke, it’s even more fun to have the neighbors guessing what’s creating that intoxicating scent wafting from the Weber. It’s a simple and ancient process probably originating in China, where the wok is the tool of choice for many types of cooking. All it takes is some dry rice, a bit of sugar, some aromatics like cinnamon, star anise, coins of fresh ginger root, orange peel, and black pepper, and a generous sprinkling of black tea. You will also need a wok with a rack (and metal handles, as wooden ones will burn) or some other two-part pan that will fit into your grill and has a perforated top section and a solid bottom one.
For easy cleanup (and what would summer be without some breezy, low-fuss cooking?), I like to line the bottom of the wok or pan with a generous layer of foil. Throw in the tinder mix and place the whole contraption onto a grill with coals that are still hot, but have grayed over. Heat for a few minutes until wisps of smoke are gently rising, signifying that the sugar is caramelizing and the resulting smoke will perfume the food you are about to put either on the wok rack or on the perforated top part of the pan.
Your choice here: boneless, tea-marinated chicken thighs work wonderfully well, but boneless chicken breast, duck breast, scallops, shrimp, or mushrooms are also ideal candidates for this kind of cooking. Put another piece of foil over all (be careful here as the wok or pan will be hot). Cover the grill and then wait about 5 to 10 minutes (check after 5 minutes) after which the food contained within should have a golden-edged look, a sign that the smoke is flavoring the food. Remove whatever you are cooking from the smoking contraption and continue to cook, as needed, either in a pan, or directly on a well-cleaned grill grate (wiped first with a light slick of olive oil), until the food tests done.
Here’s a recipe for tea-marinated chicken that may be applied to the protein of your choice.
2 c. brewed black tea (a bold Assam, Nilgiri, or Sri Lankan tea would be great here); use 9 grams of whole-leaf tea with the water, heated to just boiling, and infuse for 3 minutes
4 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed, and chopped finely
1/2 t. good-quality ground cinnamon
¼ t. ground star anise
1 t. fine sea salt
4 t. olive oil
1 T. balsamic vinegar
8 boneless chicken thighs (about 1-1/2 lbs. in total)
For the marinade, combine the first seven ingredients in a bowl. Add the chicken and turn to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, but not more than 8 hours before cooking (longer marination tends to adversely affect the texture of the protein). Remove the chicken from the marinade, discard the marinade, and then, using paper towels, dry the chicken well. While the chicken is marinating, prepare the smoking tinder. When ready to cook, set up the grill, allowing the heat to die down and the coals to ash over. Then proceed to tea-smoke the chicken on the grill.
A jasmine rice salad with fresh ripe tomatoes, kernels of fresh uncooked corn and summery basil would round out the plate nicely. Don’t forget the cold-brewed iced tea as a go-with in tall glasses garnished with fresh mint. For dessert, while the grill is still hot, caramelize some pitted fresh peaches after brushing a mixture of maple syrup and lime juice on them. Serve with high-quality vanilla ice cream and top it all off with some crushed ginger snaps (store bought is OK).
Ah, isn’t summer grand?