March 16, 2010

Sweettea

— One of the oddest experiences I had when I moved here about 20 years ago was trying to order iced tea in a Maine restaurant in February.

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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Southern sweet iced tea garnished with fresh mint and lemon. *for Food and Health*

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Jill Brady/Staff Photographer: Southern sweet iced tea garnished with fresh mint and lemon is the perfect summer refresher. *for Food and Health*

ALL

I was informed that iced tea was a seasonal item. Seasonal? Like strawberries?

Thankfully, things have changed a bit since then. While iced tea is not the first thing you'll see on a Maine restaurant menu in winter, it's no longer as rare as a hound dog with no fleas.

Tea is hot. Green teas and white teas are crowding out the Lipton's on grocery store shelves. And whoever thought you'd see McDonald's selling its own version of a Southern sweet tea anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line?

Now that it's summer, we're swimming in iced tea. I asked some Maine chefs to share their takes on this refreshing beverage (which you'll find elsewhere with this story), and I'll also explain how to make real Southern sweet tea. I've tried the Mickey D version, and while it has the sweetness factor about right, the tea tastes powdered to me. Sweet tea is so easy to make at home, you might as well make your own pitcher and have it on hand in the fridge.

I've had sweet tea on my mind because I've been traveling south a lot lately for three family weddings. The food at all the rehearsal dinners and receptions was decidedly Southern. There were smoked pork chops and tender slices of country ham in Georgia, and the cheese grits-and-shrimp in South Carolina was wolfed down at mach speed by the groomsmen, a bunch of Air Force pilots.

The one constant? Sweet tea.

Ask for iced tea in any Southern restaurant, and you'll get sweet tea unless you specify that you want ''unsweet.'' This even happened at a Chinese restaurant on my last trip.

Sweet tea is different from sweetened tea in that the sugar is added while the tea is still hot. It dissolves better that way, and I swear it just tastes different than adding a teaspoon of sugar after the tea has already been iced down.

I love ''unsweet tea'' and drink it year-round, always with lemon. For me, sweet tea is a treat to be enjoyed only occasionally. (I never drink regular Coke, either.) On the last wedding trip, when I opened up a conversation about sweet tea during the bridesmaids' luncheon, my nephew's wife -- Whitney, a woman with deep Georgia roots -- quickly put me in my place.

''You aren't a real Southern girl unless you drink sweet tea,'' she gently admonished.

Well, OK. But you have to be careful with sweet tea, or else you'll be going on the hunt for it like an addict. Seriously. I mean, it's basically caffeine, antioxidants and sugar.

And what about all that sugar? When my already-slender niece Laura wanted to lose a little weight for her wedding, one of the first things she did was cut out sweet tea.

She immediately dropped a few pounds.

Lest you feel too guilty about this guilty pleasure, however, consider the fact that a large (32-ounce) Coke at McDonald's contains 310 calories. A large sweet tea, same size, has 230 calories, a 80-calorie difference. A medium (21-ounce) sweet tea has 150 calories, and a small one (16 ounces) has 120.

I suppose you could make sweet tea with a sugar substitute, but wouldn't that be like putting pollock on the plate and calling it Maine lobster?

IT'S IN THE BAG

Still want to try it? Just boil a gallon of water, remove it from the heat and add four to five family-sized tea bags. (I use five to make it a little stronger without overbrewing it.) Now, normally I'm a tea snob. I've not been fond of tea bags since I discovered that the tea in them is basically the swept-up leavings on the tea-room floor, after all the good stuff has been taken away. But using ''real'' tea seems like too much work for something you want to be able to whip up fast on a hot summer afternoon.

And, to paraphrase Whitney, no real Southern girl is going to use anything other than tea bags. Who wants to be pouring and straining boiling water when it's a gazillion degrees outside? Southern girls, bless their hearts, also know that when the tea's finished brewing, they can always use the wet tea bags to decrease the puffiness around their eyes. (You can take the girl out of the South )

Back to the brewing. A lot of sweet-tea recipes call for you to steep the bags for 12 to 15 minutes, but you should never steep tea that long. Leave the bags in no more than three to five minutes. I usually go with five.

Many recipes also suggest adding a pinch of baking soda to cut the bitterness, but the tea wouldn't be bitter if people wouldn't steep it from here 'til Sunday.

When the tea is finished brewing, remove the tea bags and add -- hold onto your bonnets, now -- three cups of sugar.

Now you know why Southerners always seem so happy.

DON'T FORGET THE ICE

The tea will seem ultra-sweet when you first taste it, but once you pour it over ice, it will be diluted to just the right sweetness. Then, if you like, add a sprig of fresh mint. You can use lemon, too, but in the South, most people only use lemon in unsweet tea.

Obviously, you can play around with the sweetness of sweet tea. Add a half-cup of sugar at a time to find out what level of sweetness trips your trigger. When I asked Whitney how sweet her family likes their tea, she said it should be ''as sweet as syrup.''

If your tea turns out too sweet but you don't want to throw it out, try ''half and half'' -- half sweet, half unsweet -- or mix it with lemonade.

Esau Crosby, chef at Solo Bistro in Bath, brews up a batch of sweet tea every day during the summer and drinks it on the line to keep himself going when things get busy at the restaurant. Here's his version: Boil two quarts of water. Remove from the heat and add 12 tea bags. Steep for three to five minutes, then add a cup of raw brown sugar. Pour over ice and enjoy.

Sweet.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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