Here for the hot weather ahead is a perfect alternative to the usual summer soda pop orgy: a healthful drink made by a simple and inexpensive process, in limitless variety and with very satisfying results. I call it sun tea.
The secret of this summer specialty is that any herbal infusion you can make with the help of a tea kettle can also be made in the sun. All you need is:
 A wide-mouthed, clear glass jar with a water tight lid or other secure seal
 The herb of your choice (cut coarsely)
 A sunny day
First, measure out the herb into the jar. A rough guide to quantity is 1/4 to 1/2 cup of dried plant material to 4 or 5 cups of water, or 1 to 1-1/2 cups to the gallon, but these proportions can be adjusted to suit your own taste and the nature of the ingredients. Roots and seeds tend to make stronger infusions than do leaves and flowers, and are generally used in smaller amounts. If you cut your herbs fresh, you'll need about twice as much as you would if the makings were dried.
Pour the appropriate amount of water over the herb in the jar, screw on the lid, give the container a few shakes, and set it where it will receive full sunlight all day long. A rooftop, open field, driveway or similar shade-free area is ideal, but if none is available, keep an eye on the "teapot" and move it on out into the sun as any shadow approaches. Give the mixture a shake whenever you think of it.
As the day ends, bring in your tea. It will be warm and should look rich and clear in color. Open the jar and take a sniff. The aroma should be full and tantalizing.
While the brew is still warm from the sun, shake it up and dump the whole contents of the jar into a strainer placed in a bowl large enough to hold the liquid with room to spare. (Use the dregs to mulch house plants.) Before the infusion cools, add enough honey — say 1/4 cup or so per quart — to flavor the drink to your liking. Stir the mixture well with a spoon, wire whisk or your clean hands to make sure all the sweetening dissolves. Lemon or other fruit juices may be included at your discretion or can be substituted for the honey. (Next time around you may want to drop a few raisins or bits of dried or fresh fruit into the tea — for extra tang and sweetness — before you set it out to brew .)
Finally, rinse out the "teapot" to remove the dregs and funnel the finished drink from the bowl back into the jar, making allowance for whatever extra liquid you've added. I always drink any tea that won't fit back in the jar as a kind of celebration and to check out the flavor. Some of the combinations you'll come up with will be heady indeed! (Remember, though, that the beverage always seems more potent warm than chilled.)
Your solar tea can then be refrigerated, or, if you'd like a little carbonation, leave the brew tightly capped at room temperature for a while — two hours at the most — and then chill it. The result is a bubbly, slightly intoxicating beverage. This fermentation may not occur in all teas, but is worth trying for.
Although I've never attempted to make herb mead, wine or beer by the above method, I'm sure the process would work. Warning: If you try such an experiment, be careful to use all the precautions that go with the preparation of any fermented drink. A capped thermos of ours burst its inner container one summer when we accidentally left it out on the kitchen counter overnight with only about a tablespoon of honeyed solar tea inside.
The following are some of our favorite concoctions. (You'll notice, incidentally, that the first recipe calls for a brewing time of longer than one day. This is occasionally desirable to increase the tea's strength, but at some point the drink will degenerate — we've found three days of steeping to be the limit.)
Mix together the following dried materials:
3 parts by weight of peppermint leaves
2 parts each by weight of rose hips, orange flowers and red hibiscus flowers
Use 1/4 to 1/3 cup of this mixture to every quart of water, and add 3 or 4 whole cloves per quart (optional).
Set the tea to brew in the sun for 1 to 3 days. Strain it and add 1/4 to 1/3 cup honey.
This mixture is especially good when allowed to carbonate. For variety you could add to the jar — before brewing — a few raisins, a slice or two of orange or lemon, the peel of the same citrus fruits, etc.
For each quart of tea, use the following dried herbs:
2 to 3 tablespoons peppermint leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons rosemary leaves (and flowers)
Sunbrew, strain, and sweeten the tea. This beverage is very relaxing.
For each quart of tea, use the following dried herbs:
2 or 3 tablespoons fenugreek seeds
1/4 to 1/3 cup peppermint leaves
Proceed as above. The resulting brew is good for a cold, and tasty too.
For each quart of tea, use the following:
1/4 cup licorice root
2 to 3 tablespoons flaxseeds
Proceed as above (brew the mixture for one day only). Sweeten the tea with honey and add fresh lemon juice. The resulting beverage is demulcent and helpful in soothing sore throats and easing coughs. It's best drunk at room temperature for medicinal purposes.
Finally, check out the table in the image gallery for additional ingredient possibilities to try alone or in combinations. The quantities given are for dried herbs used singly, and should be adjusted if you're making a blend. Measure the ingredients without packing them down in the cup.
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