Coffee may be the number one beverage in the U.S., but it is not even on my list.
Back in the day, when Arby's restaurants only sold Jamocha Shakes and regular roast beef sandwiches, I would make my date take me across the street to Burger King to get a chocolate shake or a Coke. I avoid my husband's favorite dessert, tiramisu, that light Italian cake made with espresso-soaked cookies and sometimes drizzled with coffee liqueur. I don't even like tea if the water has been heated by filtering it through a coffee maker.
Which brings me to the subject of this column: tea. Tea is my beverage of choice. I don't feel my day has started without a cup or mug of hot, steaming tea. Even in summer, when the morning sun is beating down on the house, I'm rarely out the door without my morning tea.
Black teas are my favorites, and although I've never been a fan of herbal teas, the one tea I put at the top of my list is Earl Gray and all of its side-shoots, Earl Grayer produced by The Republic of Tea and Lady Gray, a lighter version, often found on grocery store shelves. The tea is made from typical black and orange pekoe tea leaves, but gets its flavor from the oil of the bergamot orange.
The small, pear-shaped citrus called bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia) is grown mainly in an area of southern Italy called Calabria. Some accounts describe the fruit as similar to a lime and others call it an orange, but the fruit comes from an evergreen plant that is believed to be a cross between a pear lemon and the Seville orange or grapefruit. Regardless of it's ancestry, bergamot fruit gives the tea an interesting fragrance with a hint of citrus flavor.
Here's where the definition gets a little confusing. A similar scented herb, which we often call bergamot but is unrelated to the citrus fruit in Earl Gray tea, is commonly called Beebalm. We also call this plant Monarda, from its botanical name, Monarda didyma, but it also has a third common name, Oswego Tea. This name came from the Oswego Indians of Western New York who, according to legend, provided the colonists with the dried, aromatic leaves of monarda as a tea substitute after the colonists dumped all their tea overboard. You know the story.
Native Americans used herbal teas not just as a beverage, but as medicine. Monarda tea is believed to clear the sinuses and elevate one's mood. I don't know about that, but it certainly makes me happy to sip on a warm mug of Earl Gray tea in the morning.
Growing herbs for tea is fun and interesting. Many gardeners will plant a ''tea garden'' specifically to grow plants for their favorite brews. Gardeners will experiment with the flavors of herbs, mixing them into their own unique concoctions. And just about any herb can be used to brew into tea, including fennel and dill seeds, rose hips and even lavender flowers.
With the exception of using flowers and seeds for your brew, most herbs are at their most flavorful before the plants bloom. It is best to harvest the plants early in the day, after the sun has had an opportunity to draw up the dew that fell during the night, but before its heat has also evaporated the essential oils. Between 10 and 11 a.m. is the best time to snip the leaves. Try not to tear or bruise the leaves until you are ready to use them. Once again, you don't want to lose those essential oils that give the plant, and the tea, its fragrance.
You can use either dried or fresh leaves for your tea. When leaves are dried, the moisture, but not the oils, will evaporate and the leaves will shrivel and get smaller. If making one cup of herbal tea, use one teaspoon dried leaves or three teaspoons fresh leaves. Multiply the amounts as needed for making an entire pot.
Other common herbs used to brew tea include anise hyssop, lemon basil, chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, any type of mint, rosemary, sage and, although we don't grow it here, ginger root.
While black and pekoe orange teas contain about half as much caffeine as coffee per cup, herbal teas are naturally caffeine free. Like regular tea, you can add milk and sugar if you prefer, although most people find they don't need any additives to herbal teas.
And what about green tea? A lot has been said lately about the health benefits of green tea, particularly due to its large numbers of antioxidants. In a nutshell and without getting too scientific, antioxidants are are substances or nutrients in food that help fight the bad guys, or ''free radicals,'' in our bodies.
Both green and black tea is made from the plant, Camellia sinensis. The difference is in the processing. Green tea undergoes less processing than the black varieties, which helps to retain many its health benefits.
So once in a while, trying giving the coffee maker a rest and relax with a hot mug of tea. You may find you like it even more.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.