GARDEN FRESH : Ginger: The Underground Spice

This morning, chatting with a friend about ginger, she mentioned that she took a hand of ginger and. . . .

I'd forgotten that wonderful expression, "a hand of ginger." Squint your eyes and the plump root with many stubby branches might conceivably be a hand, but that asks for poetic license. Considering the value of a hand, ginger's license is granted. Ginger's sweet, hot, catch-in-the-throat pungency is indispensable, after all, around the world.

Ginger was born in the tropics and its complex flavors blend well with the simple flavors relished in hot climates. Ginger with crab and shrimp. Ginger with white-fleshed fish and pork. Ginger with dried legumes--central to India's vegetarian cuisines. Ginger with almost every fruit and vegetable on Earth.

When ground dried ginger found its way to cooler climates, its brilliance in baked goods was discovered (this was little known in the not-big-on-baking tropics). I can't imagine life without gingerbread. As a girl, I baked it every Christmas for years, pouring the fragrant batter into molds shaped like butterflies and Christmas trees, ginger boys and ginger girls. One Christmas after I grew up, I replaced powdered ginger with grated fresh--glorious.

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Besides its heavenly ways with flour, ginger has special affinities for garlic, cilantro and chilies. Bruce Cost, the knowledgeable writer on Asian cuisine, notes this in his book "Ginger, East to West" (Addison-Wesley). One of the things this collection of delightful recipes and lore taught me is that when ginger's skin is thin, you needn't peel it. Another--it had never occurred to me--is that I can dry thin peeled slices of mature ginger in the sun, then grind them in the blender for ultra-fresh spice.

Ginger is a handsome plant. The bright green leaves are long, flat and narrow, and their thin round stalks grow three feet tall, like some kind of bamboo. The leaves have a wonderfully gingery flavor too, and they're a big reason why I grow the plant. I slice thin ribbons of young leaves and add them to salads and fruit cups, toss them in stir-fries, and use long ribbons to tie bundles of snap beans or slender leeks or skinny wedges of zucchini--a pretty presentation. We also wrap chunks of sea bass in young ginger leaves, fix them with a bamboo skewer and grill them, making a packet that is entirely edible.

Sometimes in spring, ginger bears small yellowish flowers touched with purple, but they're infrequent and indifferent blooms. They are edible, however. In recipes, the petals of one ginger flower can be substituted for one tablespoon of chopped root.

(By now, some of you must be wondering why I've called ginger a root when it's a rhizome--a fleshy stem that sends shoots up and roots down. Well, I agree that it's a rhizome when I'm thinking of it as part of a plant, but when I'm cooking, like most people I think of it as a root.)

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Being native to the tropics, ginger revels in warmth but not blazing sun, humidity but not soggy soil--and the soil must be super-rich in humus and well-drained. You can start your plants with ginger rhizomes from an organic produce stand (those from the supermarket may have been treated not to sprout; to be absolutely sure of a crop, buy rhizomes from a nursery). Choose pieces that are plump and fresh with lots of little knobs, which are the sprouting points.

Although fastest growth is from plants started in early spring, rhizomes grow all summer long. For each plant, use a knobby piece the size of a large egg. If cut, let the cuts dry, then set the piece knobby side up in moist rich soil or compost just beneath the surface. Warmth speeds growth, so I start the rhizomes in a pot and set it by the stove. I water the soil well, then cover it with a few inches of straw or coarse leaves--something light that lets in air but conserves moisture. Until there are sprouts, I water only enough to keep the soil moist.

When sprouts appear, the pot goes in our warmest sunniest corner--whether indoors or out, depending upon the time of year--and I remove the mulch. When leaves are growing vigorously, the plant needs lots of water; the soil must be kept just this side of wet. Feed ginger with a weak fish emulsion monthly.

To create a gingery environment, pile heat-gathering rocks around a patch in the warmest part of your garden that gets sun in the morning, then bright shade the rest of the day. Add humidity to the air with a couple of inches of ground bark around the plant. Wave the hose fitted with a misting nozzle over the plant and mulch every morning, and in the afternoon too, if the air is dry.

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If your garden is frost-free, you can grow ginger in the ground the year around. For a hedge of ginger, which is lovely behind tuberous begonias, set plants a hand's-breadth apart. If you get frost, either grow plants in the ground through summer, then pot them up and bring them indoors for cold weather, or grow your ginger in a pot from the start. Ultimately each plant needs a container 15 inches wide by a foot deep--about 1 3/4 cubic feet of soil mix, which must be rich and fast-draining. In a slightly bigger pot, you can give ginger a brilliant border of impatiens (Busy Lizzie). Give ginger in pots the same situation in the garden as in the ground.

Ginger grows well indoors, given light, warmth and humidity. The kitchen and bathroom are the moistest rooms in the house, and a cozy sunny spot in one of them is ideal. For added humidity, set the pot on a large tray of pebbles several inches deep, with water just below the surface.

Another reason I grow ginger is to harvest it at the baby stage. Whereas the skin of the ginger at the supermarket is tan and papery, baby ginger's is translucent and sheer. The flesh of mature ginger root is fibrous, but baby's is succulent. The older the roots, the more their bite and snap, so baby ginger tastes mild as May. In China, young ginger is sliced into coins or matchsticks and stir-fried as a vegetable on its own.

Given its wants, ginger races--you can be harvesting baby roots in three to four months. But before then, if you grow several plants, treat yourself to a handful of ginger shoots--snip them at a few inches and toss with snow peas in a stir-fry. For larger roots with deeper flavor, wait at least five months or up to eight or nine months to harvest. Plant a piece of the root and start the process over.

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As a deciduous perennial, ginger goes dormant in winter, its leaves dying back. At that point, keep the plant warm, but only give minimal water until early spring, when you'll water and wait as before.

Your harvest of ginger root will stay fresh for several weeks in the refrigerator's vegetable drawer. Wrap it in a paper towel and tuck it in a plastic food bag (the paper towel absorbs moisture that might produce mold). My friend of the ginger hand freezes small pieces and then grates them still frozen, since the ginger will turn mushy when thawed. I keep nuggets of peeled ginger on reserve in a jar of Sherry in the refrigerator--they stay plump indefinitely, and the tipple adds warmth in cooking.

Perhaps the best way to keep ginger is to candy it, then dip it in bittersweet chocolate. It lasts ages in an airtight box. Right.

Sources

Fresh: There are mature roots in every supermarket--buy the plumpest. Look for baby ginger in Asian markets from early summer to early autumn.

Starter plants by mail: Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Road, Athens, Ohio 45701.

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This sauce turns the simplest fish, fowl, meat and full-flavored vegetable into something special. It may be prepared hours in advance, adding the garlic before serving. To serve with something not steamed, cook unpeeled garlic cloves in simmering salted water until tender, about 15 minutes, then peel and press into the sauce.

Steaming is one of the leanest and most satisfactory ways to cook fish--it's certainly the fastest and easiest. You'll need a heat-proof 9 1/2-inch plate that's 3/4-inch deep. Set the plate on a large Chinese steamer or cake rack over a wok, or directly in an 11-inch skillet that's about 2 inches deep. Pour 1 inch of hot water in the wok and 1/2 inch of hot water in the skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat until the water simmers, lay in the fish, then cover and start timing.

FRESH GINGER SAUCE OVER STEAMED RED SNAPPER

2 ounces ginger root

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

4 fillets red snapper or other white-fleshed fish, to equal 1 pound total

8 garlic cloves, peeled

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

4 clusters red grapes

Small bunch cilantro

Peel ginger and cut in small pieces. Process in food processor until minced, about scant 1/2 cup, fairly loosely packed. Turn into serving bowl. Blend with soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Cover and reserve in cool place until serving time.

Prepare steaming arrangement as above. When water simmers, lay fish and garlic on plate. Cover and steam. Test for doneness after 3 minutes, when fish is slit with tip of knife and flesh is opaque, about 5 minutes. Lift fish with spatula onto heated platter, leaving juices behind.

Quickly push garlic through press into ginger sauce and mix. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Arrange grapes beside fish and lay 2 to 3 cilantro sprigs on each fillet. Serve at once, passing sauce separately. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

144 calories; 615 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.24 gram fiber.

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