At Cindi Bigelow's house, there is a drawer dedicated to hundreds of tea bags, all laid out at the ready. One need only select one, maybe two -- say Perfect Peach and Red Raspberry -- to brew up a tasty libation.

But for all the versatility these tea varieties hold when it comes to quenching a person's thirst, Bigelow knows the bags could just as easily take their place among the spices in her cabinets.

"Take Constant Comment, that's a 70-year-old recipe," said Bigelow of one of the more than 100 varieties offered by Bigelow Tea, the Fairfield-based company her family has run for more than 60 years. It is a unique mix of black teas, orange rinds and sweet spices.

"So much goes into that one tea bag," said Bigelow, the company's president. "There might be up to 15 to 18 ingredients. You can get an amazing taste profile into whatever you are cooking."

As such, the recipe section on Bigelow's website is a popular spot for visitors. And, it's not just the "Greenie Mar-Tea-ni," spicy chocolate chai tea or "Constant Comment" carrot cake cupcakes, that get the most hits. The appetizers and main meals have plenty of fans, too.

For thousands of years, tea has had its place at the table as something worth sipping. These days, home cooks and professional chefs are finding it adds a depth of flavor to any course. Its use can vary tremendously, offering those who like to experiment a big palette from which to choose.

"In tea, you can get a wide variety of flavors, aromas and textures," said Aurelie Bessiere, the president of New York City-based Le Palais des Thes USA. This tea company, whose headquarters are based in Paris, was started by Bessiere's uncle in 1986. "This wide variety of taste is what makes tea so interesting. There is a tea for everything, every hour and every occasion."

Cooking with tea has hit the top of culinary trends lists for several years, and it was recently featured as the secret ingredient on Food Network's "Iron Chef" competition. Such popularity seems to have even inspired a new type of tea. At the Winter Fancy Food Show, which took place earlier this year, attendants could taste broccoli-flavored and other savory teas.

From the start, Annie Misir hoped to provide her customers with a total tea experience, from the flavorful brews they sipped from their cups to the dishes placed before them. Nearly a year into her role as owner and operator of The Tailored Tea in Latham, N.Y., Misir is seeing her aspirations come to fruition.

"That was always my plan," Misir said of a tea-infused menu. When she first opened the tea house café in April 2012, she said there were a few dishes that incorporated tea as an ingredient, but more are being added based on the response of her customers.

"Tea can be a universal accompaniment for a lot of different foods," she said, adding that it is the kind of ingredient that adds to the dish but rarely overpowers it. "It just adds another layer of flavor."

For years, Le Palais has collaborated with chefs in France and has recently started programs with New York City's International Culinary Institute and the James Beard Foundation. Bessiere said tea as an ingredient has been a tradition in Asian cuisine, but is relatively new to Western culture.

"But, it is growing," she said of the trend. "People are eager to learn about tea and how to use it."

Tea may serve as a substitute for fat, water, broth or alcohol in a recipe. Once steeped, it can be added to sauces, oils or marinades. Throw loose tea into a spice grinder, add some additional ingredients and you have a rub for meat. You can smoke meat or fish by using tea leaves. In certain baked goods, loose tea can go in whole. Green tea, when ground to a fine powder (matcha), flavors pound cakes or noodles. Ice creams have benefited from chai and Earl Grey tea.

The major types of tea include black, green, white and oolong, which are all made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis shrub. The way the leaves are processed give the tea its distinct flavor. Tea can feature such ingredients as herbs, spices, flowers, fruits and berries, which also are found in herbal teas, not technically termed a "tea" because they do not contain tea leaves. Such versatile flavors means a simple rice dish can be changed time and time again based on whatever combination of tea has been infused into the boiled water, broth or sauce. Tea can add just a hint of or provide a much deeper flavor depending on the strength and type of tea.

Bessiere has found tea can make an easy dish taste as if she has spent hours in the kitchen.

"Often, I will heat some water in a pan and infuse it with a smoky tea (such as Lapsang Souchong) before putting in some salmon," she said. "Without adding anything else, it gives it a great taste."

On the other end is the light and fruity touch of Bigelow's Pomegranate Pizzazz, which flavors a vinaigrette recipe that can be teamed with a green salad.

"It's so easy to do, and very, very healthy," said Bigelow. "The tea just gives is an amazing taste."

If you are interested in getting steeped in the art of cooking with tea, start off with a few dishes and choose tea you enjoy for sipping, said those interviewed. There are cookbooks out there, too, such as "The Tea Cookbook," which teamed Joanna Pruess with John Harney of the Millerton, N.Y.-based Harney & Sons Tea (the company got its start in Salisbury, Conn.).

As Pruess notes in her introduction: "Once you start experimenting with tea, you'll discover an almost unlimited range of uses for it .... Your definition of seasonings will never be the same."; 203-964-2241;

Green Salad with Pomegranate Vinaigrette and Goat Cheese Garnish

Serves 4

4 cups mixed lettuce greens

¼ cup pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries

2 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled

Pomegranate Vinaigrette

½ cup boiling water

6 Bigelow Pomegranate Pizzazz herb tea bags

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons grated shallots

1 teaspoon sugar, to taste

Salt and pepper, to taste

Infuse water with the six tea bags for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags. Combine vinegar, olive oil and shallots. Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Arrange a cup of mixed greens on four plates, garnish with pomegranate seeds or dried cranberries and goat cheese, drizzle with the vinaigrette. Serve immediately.

-- This recipe, and others, can be found on the Bigelow Tea website

Walnut Tea Loaf

Makes 8 servings

Canola oil cooking spray

1 1/4 cups gluten-free flour mix

3/4 cup almond flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup prepared Le Palais des Thés Mélange du Cap Rooibos tea, at room temperature

1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/4 cup canola oil

2 large eggs

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 teaspoon grated orange zest

2/3 cup chopped walnuts

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-inch by 4-inch loaf pan with cooking spray and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together the gluten-free and almond flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a heat-proof measuring cup, steep 1 tablespoon Mélange du Cap in ½ cup of 195-degree (not-quite-boiling) water for five minutes. Strain out the tea leaves, and cool to room temperature. In another bowl, combine applesauce, oil and cooled tea. Set both bowls aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer until well blended and airy, about one minute. Add the white and brown sugars, beat together, then add wet ingredients. Add the dry ingredients and zest and mix just until they are combined with other ingredients; there will be many small lumps. Using rubber spatula, blend in most of the small lumps, taking care not to over-mix. Stir in the nuts. Scoop the batter into the prepared baking pan.

Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a straw inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn the loaf out of pan and cool completely.

This tea loaf is best served after wrapping in foil for eight to 24 hours, which allows flavors to ripen and loaf to become more moist.

-- From Le Palais des Thes, as adapted from cookbook author Dana Jacobi's column "Something Different."

Butternut Squash Bisque Steeped in Cinnamon Spice Tea Makes 6 servings

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium carrot, diced

2 to 3 ribs of stalks, diced

1/2 white onion, diced

3 cloves garlic

1 large or 2 small butternut squash

1 tablespoons cinnamon spice tea

1 quart heavy cream

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Peel and cut butternut squash into a medium dice. Remove seeds.

Boil 2 cups water, steep tea 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sautee diced carrot, celery and onion in oil until carrots start to become tender, celery and onion are translucent.

Pour in the tea broth; add squash and garlic cloves. Simmer until squash is tender and can be easily mashed.

Puree with a hand or stand up blender.

Return to a simmer and add heavy cream.

Let soup simmer, stirring often until cream reduces by about one quarter.

Salt and pepper, to taste, and serve warm.

Garnish with diced roasted butternut squash, roasted squash seeds, and/or garlic croutons.

From Scott Baggott, executive chef, The Tailored Tea