In Case of Emergency, Make Tea

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Photo by Sally Schneider

If there was ever a tea for an improvised life, it is verbena. Although it suits many purposes and moods, it is especially good for emergencies, when the shit is hitting the fan. When a friend calls in anguish or needing support for some trauma, I make verbena tea, or throw some dried verbena in a plastic bag to take with me and make tea on site; it's famously calming.

It's also great for less dramatic occasions, to serve after a dinner party, say, when you need to serve something delicious and surprising to folks who don't drink coffee. When you're desperate for a house gift to take to someone you're visiting, package up some dried verbena in a cello-bag or a canning jar, and get points for bringing something charming and real. Verbena is a useful flavoring in the kitchen, and be steeped into custard sauces, used to flavor jello and dessert syrups, or used sparingly to scent fish en papillote.

Sealed tight, the tea will last a year, so it's easy to keep on hand for whatever life brings.

Drying fresh verbena could not be easier and is much cheaper than buying it from a good tea store like Takashimaya. The next couple of weeks is the time to do it while fresh verbena is still available in farmer's markets.

You buy a few bunches, spread it on a rack and dry it in a warm oven, then strip off the leaves, and pack it into jars. Sealed tight, the tea will last a year, so it's easy to keep on hand for whatever life brings. (You can use this method to make other herb teas: chocolate peppermint or chamomile, for example, or to dry herbs for storage.)

Step 1: Place cooling racks on a sheet pan to elevate the herbs. Snip the rubber bands off the bunches, separate the branches, and loosely arrange on the racks. You can use as many sheet pans as your oven will accommodate.


Photo by Sally Schneider

Step 2: Place the rack(s) in the oven and close the door. If you have a gas oven with a ever-lit pilot light, the oven will be warm enough to dry the verbena. I haven't tried this in an electric oven but here's the gist of how I would do it. Preheat to the lowest setting possible, 150 to 200'F. Add the racks and leave 2 hours, then turn the oven off. Check the tea after a few hours. If the oven is cold and the tea does not appear to be drying, heat it again and let the tea continue to dry, feeling your way with heating and turning off the oven.

Leave the racks in the oven overnight or until the leaves are perfectly dry and crumbly.


Photo by Sally Schneider

Step 3: Place a sheet of wax paper on your work surface. Pick up a branch of dried verbena and, working in the direction of the leaves, strip the leaves off the branch with your fingers in one or two strokes. Try not to crush the leaves; whole ones look prettiest (especially for gifts), though it doesn't really matter.


Photo by Sally Schneider

Transfer the tea to a clean, dry jar and seal tightly. The tea will keep for a year.

To brew, crumble leaves in a heated tea pot. (I figure a small handful of whole leaves per cup--maybe a 1/4 cup's worth, but you can fool around with amounts). Add boiling water and steep until it is the strength you like. Strain.

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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