Friday, September 16, 2011

Herbal Infusions and Cooked Vegetable Broth

Pictured below is an herbal infusion: for once, I actually am not using the term herbal tea because there is nothing remotely tea-like about the process I used to create this liquid:

What is it? It looks a little bit like hibiscus tea, but it's not...a little too light perhaps? It does not taste remotely like hibiscus. This is nothing you'd ever buy at a tea or herb shop, it's the broth left over after cooking vegetables, a specific type of cooked green. Red-veined amaranth leaves, to be specific, called xian cai(莧菜/苋菜) in Chinese. Here are the greens themselves, after cooking:

I found the leaves to have a flavor most closely resembling green beans, but with suggestions of beets and asparagus. They tasted very familiar, even though I have never consciously eaten them before. If you click on the photo of the cooked greens, you can read more about my experience cooking and eating them. In contrast to some new vegetables, which often become more of an acquired taste, I think this vegetable would be pretty accessible to someone who likes the more familiar Western cooked greens and other vegetables.

What is amaranth?

In the U.S., amaranth is most known for its use as an alternative grain; it is generally available in health food stores, and is also gluten-free. It is also a relative of quinoa. In China and India, especially in warmer regions, however, amaranth is widely used as a cooked vegetable. Amaranth thrives in hot climates with poor soil, where the heat and soil are poor for growing greens like spinach that are popular in northern climates. I first learned of amaranth's use as a cooked green from an Indian gardener in Cleveland.

Vegetable Broth vs. Herbal Tea:

In our modern society, when we cook vegetables, we often discard the broth, viewing it as waste. Yet we then go out and buy herbal teas, carefully steep them, and drink them. At times, we even drink foul-tasting concoctions in search of their supposed "health benefits". In this post I want to highlight something so simple it's almost mindless. When you cook vegetables, the resulting leftover water is an herbal infusion; it's packed with vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals--anything water-soluble goes out in the broth. And it's fresher and more nutritious than any infusion that you could make from dried herbs, as the drying process results in considerable loss and degradation of vitamins and flavor.

There are a few cases where it is not good to drink vegetable broth; some plants used as vegetables, such as pokeweed, have water-soluble toxins and which are only edible after repeated boiling and draining, but these plants are generally not widely available at stores or markets in the U.S.

What did this amaranth broth taste like?

If you're not used to drinking the leftover broth after cooking vegetables, it may taste a bit strange to you. The flavor is the very essence of vegetal...after all, the word "vegetal" is just an attempt to describe the aromas and flavors of vegetables when they occur in tea or other food or drink where we may not expect them.

It was definitely not the sort of thing that I would seek out to drink as a beverage, on its own, but it was also not at all unpleasant. Perhaps I would acquire a taste for it if I drank this sort of thing more. But the experience was interesting to me, and I think will inform my palate when tasting teas and herbal teas that have vegetal qualities.

What do you think?

Some questions come to my mind. Do you ever drink the leftover broth after cooking vegetables? What is the cutoff between vegetable broth, and herbal tea brewed from fresh herbs? Does this distinction only lie in intentions? What do you think of the vegetal qualities in tea? And have you ever tried amaranth greens?

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