Fresh, spicy and seasonal, ginger can heat up your March menus.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Around here, March blows in feeling like winter. While our spring crops are still nothing but seeds, it’s the peak of the harvest for fresh ginger in Hawaii.
This tropical rhizome—not a root exactly, but a tuber-like stem with roots of its own—is delicious and versatile. If you find yourself using it exclusively to prepare Asian dishes, rotate it into more frequent use and see just how well it can mesh with all kinds of flavors.
Like lemon, ginger’s bright, refreshing aroma complements sweet and savory foods. Its complex flavor has flowery, citrusy, woody and peppery notes with spicy heat that becomes more pronounced as the rhizome matures (young ginger can taste rather mild).
Indigenous to southern Asia, it was domesticated there in prehistoric times. When Chinese cookery as we know it emerged around the 12th century B.C., ginger’s sharp, clean taste was a key building block in dishes that remain popular today, such as noodles with minced pork and ginger. Equally important were its medicinal and spiritual aspects: Its warming properties were considered to speed healing and build ch’i, or spiritual life energy.
Ginger came to the New World during the era of Columbus in the 15th century. It took root in the Caribbean—today, Jamaica remains a large producer—and in dried form became a staple of Colonial New England cookery. For 200 years after the first settlers arrived, candied ginger, ginger cookies, ginger ice cream and gingerbread were hugely popular. More American than apple pie, the spice was so common that it was included in the rations provided to soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Today, dried ginger is less popular here than it used to be, while fresh ginger is on the upswing. Twenty years ago, it was exotic and hard to find, but now it’s stocked in most grocery stores. Yet it still retains an air of mystery for many of us cooks, or we use it only when an Asian-inspired dish like ginger beef is on the menu.
But considering ginger’s unequaled flavors, it’s time to change that and find new uses for this healthy, warming rhizome. A good start is our recipe for ginger-lemon muffins (below), which incorporates ginger in a thoroughly American manner—a sweet breakfast treat that’s perfect for pairing with a hot cup of coffee.
In Pittsburgh and throughout the country, most fresh ginger you’ll find comes from Hawaii, where the harvest runs from December to June and peaks in February and March. So while using fresh ginger doesn’t exactly mean shopping local, it is, at least, seasonal, and the quality right now is high. Follow these tips for making the most of it while the season is at its peak.
How to Buy
Shop for ginger that is weighty and rock-hard to the touch—pieces should not look wrinkly or feel light for their size. Polished, smooth skin is a hallmark of ginger from Hawaii, but since ginger imported from elsewhere can taste just as good but have rougher skin, the exterior appearance isn’t always a marker of quality. Most well-stocked groceries carry fresh ginger as do Asian grocery stores such as Lotus Food Co. (1649 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412/281-3050).
How to Prepare
Once you are ready to prepare the ginger, peel it with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Using a sharp knife (a dull one will have trouble with the roots’ fibrous quality), slice across the fibers. Make slices as thin as possible if you will be cutting them again into matchsticks or finely dicing them.
Japanese-made ceramic graters of extreme hardness are designed specifically for grating ginger, with rows of sharp teeth that shred the rhizome and leave unwanted fibers behind. These unique graters also work for grating lemon zest, chocolate or nutmeg and usually cost less than $15—look for the Kyocera brand at well-stocked Asian groceries and kitchen stores or on amazon.com.
How to Store and Use
Place fresh ginger in a plastic bag with a paper towel to absorb moisture (to prevent mold from developing), and store it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Generally, the quality will be best if used within a week, although it should stay fresh for two to three.
If you’re not quite sure what dish to make, sites like epicurious.com or your own bookshelf should be a fine resource for recipes. Start with classic Asian or Indian dishes such as Chinese ginger beef, stir-fried Asian eggplant with ginger or Indian chicken korma. For something different, try our ginger-lemon muffins, or look up a recipe for homemade chai tea.