Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Abra Berens (Bare Knuckle Farm)

The challenger: Marianne Sundquist (In Fine Spirits)

The ingredient: Yinzhen Silver Needle Tea

Abra Berens is committed to cooking with local ingredients. She co-owns the two-year-old Bare Knuckle Farm—a small vegetable farm in Northport, Michigan, with chickens, ducks, geese, and hogs—and cooks at Vie, among other places, during the winter. Yinzhen silver needle tea comes from China, about as nonlocal as you can get—and she thinks that’s exactly why Marianne Sundquist picked it for her. “She knows I tend to only use ingredients that are coming from our farm or the midwestern area, so I think she gave me something that’s not midwestern just to see what would happen with it,” Berens says.

Like other white teas, silver needle tea is picked young and processed as little as possible, not undergoing the oxidation process that gives black tea much of its flavor. Berens had tried white tea before, but not the silver needle variety, which she describes as light, with “a mild grassiness, a little bit of sweetness.” It’s also “the most delicate tea I’ve ever had,” which presented certain challenges for cooking. “It takes a really subtle hand not to overpower it,” Berens said.

She ended up making a tea-infused salt, which she’d never tried—or heard of—before: “I just kind of thought it might work and gave it a shot.” Berens took chunks of pink Himalayan salt, dissolved it in water, then threw in some tea leaves and boiled off the water. “I was kind of hoping for a big, crunchy, like Maldon sea salt, and that didn’t really happen, but it worked pretty well,” she said. “I think I ruined a pot that I had in my kitchen, because it now has this salty, crusty coating, but it’s coming off.”

Another discovery Berens made was that the tea leaves themselves were edible. She had brewed some of the tea, “and it was in a teapot with one of those infusion baskets—I opened it up, took a couple bites, and was superexcited about how nice it was to eat,” she says. “A black tea isn’t going to taste real good in your mouth, but these [leaves] are so light and tender.” She ended up leaving the tea buds in the dissolved salt as it evaporated out, giving her something “kind of like a salt-packed caper. It absorbs the salt and gets real crystally, and fairly salty but you still get that kind of grassiness.”

She put the salty leaves on top of hiramasa (yellowtail) crudo in place of finishing salt, and accompanied it with a salad of shaved asparagus from Klug Farms and radishes and pea shoots from her farm. The vinaigrette incorporated lemon and honey because they’re classic accompaniments to tea, and olive oil “to bring out that grassiness and sweetness.” Redbud tree blossoms, which Berens describes as “really bright” in taste, with a “red-fruit kind of flavor,” topped the salad.

Berens also used the tea in one last component, a granita made from silver needle tea with a bit of salt (the tea-infused stuff) and sugar added to keep it from forming ice cubes in the freezer, which she put on top of the fish. She admits to stealing the idea from Graham Elliot, who’s served an octopus appetizer with lemon granita, which “was kind of this duh moment—it seemed like a natural kind of connection.”

Tasting the dish, Berens said, “I’d pay money for that.” Taking another bite, she added, “I’d ask other people to pay money for that.” The tea flavor was “pretty light,” but “I think it’s there,” she said.

Who’s Next:

Sandra Holl of Floriole Cafe & Bakery, working with apricot kernels (the part inside the apricot pit). “They’re an interesting ingredient because they have a little bit of cyanide in them,” says Berens. The kernels “are something I’ve always kind of wanted to work with, and I haven’t done a ton of research to figure out how to use them, so I figure, let her do the learning and then I can just copy her.” 

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Hiramasa With Tea Salt, a Spring Salad, and White Tea Ice

Serves four

4 oz hiramasa (yellowtail), sliced thinly

1 oz sea salt

pinch of tea leaves

½ c water

1 c white tea, steeped overnight

pinch of salt

1 T sugar

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 T honey

¼ c olive oil

salt and pepper

2 stalks of asparagus, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 radishes, thinly sliced

handful of pea shoots

To infuse the salt, combine the sea salt, water, and tea leaves. Over high heat bring to a boil, stirring until all of the salt dissolves. Continue to boil until all of the water has evaporated and the pan is dry. Scrape the salt and leaves from the pan and store in an airtight container.

To make the tea ice, combine the heavily steeped tea, salt, and sugar in a wide metal bowl. Stir until both the sugar and salt are fully dissolved. Place the freezer for an hour and a half. Break up the ice crystals and fluff with a fork every half hour until the ice is fully frozen.

To make the vinaigrette combine the lemon juice, zest, honey, and salt in a small mason jar and let sit for ten minutes. Add the olive oil and pepper, cap tightly, and shake to emulsify. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.

To assemble the dish, slice the radishes and asparagus and toss with the pea shoots and vinaigrette. Slice the hiramasa, arrange on the plate, and season with the infused salt and salted tea leaves. Place the asparagus salad to one side of the fish. Top the hiramasa with the white tea ice and serve immediately.