More than any other spice, ginger has a presence that transcends
taste and scent. The warm perfume of cooking ginger is a nostalgic
waft from the past; as Laurie Colwin wrote, “ginger is the
smell of childhood.” Its spicy pungency warms the belly, strengthens
the heart, gives courage to the faltering and inflames lasting passions.
All in all, ginger is a useful spice to have around.
The ginger we know best (zingiber officinale) has been grown in
the Middle East, Asia and southern Europe for thousands of years.
Spanish and Portuguese conquerors carried it to their colonies around
the world, where it was cultivated and sold back to cold, foggy
northern Europe. Ginger then, as now, was the taste of sunshine
and warmth, of feasting and revelry.
We may have lost our taste for other medieval treats, such as myrrh,
juniper, and swan, but the use of ginger has come down to us in
traditional European holiday foods like gingerbread, ginger cookies,
ginger molasses and ginger beer. The infamous holiday gingerbread
house is a holdover from a kind of hard, molded gingerbread that
was sold at fairs.
In the past ginger was often used with meats, as it still is in
Asia, but the savory tradition fell from favor in the West and our
love of ginger lived on only in sweets. The Ladies Indispensable
Companion of 1859 uses ginger freely in many recipes, especially
in pies, puddings, preserves and with apples, with which they have
a particular affinity. Ginger was a frequent addition to the medicines
and tonics made by every housewife for her family.
Then, for decades, ginger became homely and old-fashioned. None
of Escoffier’s many books, the 1965 Gourmet cookbook, nor
Mastering the Art of Fresh Cooking (1974) have recipes featuring
ginger as the main ingredient. But when cutting-edge Asian-fusion
cooking became all the rage, ginger was rediscovered by chefs looking
for that punch of flavor and aroma that only ginger delivers.
Ginger is a rhizome, one member of a generously endowed family
of aromatics known as zingiberaceae, which includes turmeric, galangal,
cardamom and other exotic plants, many unknown in this country.
Usually the root is eaten, but in Asia, the Pacific and elsewhere
the tips and shoots are used for flavoring steamed foods and in
stir-fries, or snipped and eaten raw as a garnish for rice, pickled,
in soups, curries and chutneys, condiments, beverages and candies.
Ancient Hawaiians used the shoots to flavor meats roasted in underground
In Asia, ginger has a long medical tradition. Chinese herbalists
use dried ginger to restore yang, and use it to treat conditions
of the spleen, stomach and lungs. Fresh ginger is considered warming
and anti-emetic for all cold conditions and digestive upsets. A
powerful detoxificant, it is often used in combination with other
herbs to modify their action. In this country, many people have
learned that a little ginger root helps combat nausea and motion
Fresh ginger has a distinctive flavor that is neither sweet nor
savory, but works surprisingly well to unite other strong flavors.
Happy pairings include cilantro, vinegar, big spices, garlic and
onions, fruits and vegetables. Use ginger to inspire, unite, and
lift flavors; contrast with blander foods like rice or rich foods
such as creams, pork and duck.
On the sweet side, ginger is a natural with apples, stone fruit
and pears. It is amazingly good with chocolate. Dried ginger is
used mostly in baking, where it adds a spicy zing.
The balanced flavor of ginger goes well with white wines that
have their own spicy personality, such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer,
and Sauvignon Blanc.
Ginger is used in many forms. The fresh root may be dried, ground,
pickled, preserved in sugar syrup or crystallized.
Dried ground ginger has a tendency to be spicy, peppery hot. It
is used almost exclusively in baking and is never a substitute for
Fresh ginger root should be firm and thin-skinned; the fingers
will snap off easily. Always avoid flaccid, shrunken roots.
Buy ginger in small quantities. Keep it wrapped and refrigerated
until use. If you use it infrequently, the root can be peeled, cut
into one-inch chunks and frozen until you need it.
Ginger is always peeled before use. Very fresh ginger is easily
peeled by scraping the skin away with the edge of a spoon, or peel
with a sharp paring knife.
The root has many stringy fibers. Grating the root on a fine grater
or special Japanese ginger grater will render pulp and juice without
fiber. To chop, thinly slice the ginger across the fibers and then
chop as finely as possible.
OLD-FASHIONED GINGER WALNUT COOKIES
If you do not care for molasses, this is the ginger cookie for
you. The recipe is very old, probably German in origin. The best
crystallized ginger comes from Australia, and may be purchased in
most supermarkets and health food stores. Or, you can try making
your own (below.)
Makes 36 cookies
2/3 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ cup boiling water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 ounces crystallized ginger, cut into tiny pieces (about ½
½ cup chopped walnuts
Larger walnut pieces for decoration (optional)
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets.
- In a mixer, cream the butter until soft; add the brown sugar
a little at a time and beat until fluffy.
- Stir the soda into the boiling water and add to the butter,
along with the vanilla. Stir in the flour and when it is well
combined, stir in the chopped ginger and walnuts.
- Form the dough into 1-tablespoon balls and press flat with
a fork. Top with a piece of walnut. Bake for 12-15 minutes or
until set and lightly browned.
1 pound very fresh ginger root
About 1 pound sugar (divided use)
¼ cup water
- Peel the ginger, slice thinly crosswise or in long, thin strips,
and place in a saucepan. Barely cover with water. Bring to a simmer
and cook until the ginger is tender when poked with a sharp knife,
- Drain the ginger. Measure the ginger and place into a small,
deep saucepan. Add an equal measure of white sugar and the water.
Bring to a boil, stirring.
- Cook until the syrup is very thick but not turning brown –
- Toss the ginger in a bowl of dry sugar to coat. Spread out
on a nonstick cookie sheet to dry. Store in an airtight container.
STIR-FRIED SHRIMP WITH GREEN
“Curry” refers to any kind of complex seasoning mixture,
not that nasty canned yellow powder lurking on the back of your
spice shelf. This recipe has Thai origins, and is traditionally
served with seafood. If you like spicy, this is for you. (If you
don’t like spicy, use 1 serrano.) The ginger unites the other
powerful flavors, and everything is smoothed out with coconut milk
and lime. Serves 4.
1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
A 4-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 large serrano chiles (more or fewer to taste)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (divided use)
1 ½ pounds large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
1 – 14 ounce can coconut milk
½ cup water, as needed
To Serve: Cooked white rice
- Make the Green Curry: In the bowl of a food processor, combine
the cilantro, chopped ginger, shallots, garlic, serranos, cumin,
salt and pepper. Puree to a smooth paste, scraping the sides down
frequently. Measure out 3/4 cup of Green Curry for the recipe.
(The rest may be refrigerated and used with one week.)
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a wok or
large sauté pan. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until
the shrimp are pink and just barely firm. Remove the shrimp and
- Return the pan to medium heat and add the remaining oil. Add
the Green Curry Paste and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add
the lime juice and coconut milk and stir well. Add the shrimp
back to the pan and cook a minute longer. Add the water only if
the sauce seems too thick. Correct seasoning with lime juice and
- Serve immediately on the cooked rice.
GINGERED CARROT SOUP
This is my favorite fall soup – a beautiful orange color,
full of warming ginger energy. And talk about healthy! The ginger
flavor is quite pronounced – feel free to reduce the quantity.
2 tablespoons butter
3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, about 1/3 cup
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped, about 1 ½ cups
6 cups unsalted chicken stock
5 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon white pepper
Water as needed
To serve: ¼ cup crème fraiche
Chives, thinly sliced
- In a 3-quart saucepot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add
the ginger and onion and cook, slowly, until the onion is soft
but not colored; it will smell wonderful.
- Add the stock, increase heat and bring to a boil. Add the chopped
carrots and salt, and cook at a steady simmer for about 30 minutes
or until the carrots are very, very soft. Stir in the white pepper.
- Let the soup cool for a few minutes, then puree in a blender
until absolutely smooth. Return to the pot and thin as needed
with small amounts of water. Reheat over gentle heat, stirring
often, and correct seasoning.
- Whip the crème fraiche until it will drizzle off a spoon.
Serve the soup very hot with streaks of creme fraiche on the surface,
and scattered chives.
PEAR AND APPLE CHUTNEY
Some chutneys are very complex, but this is a quick and simple
recipe you can whip up in no time. Serve with ham, roast pork, grilled
chicken or roast duck, or spread inside a grilled cheese sandwich.
You can use it immediately, but the flavor improves after a day
in the refrigerator. Makes about 2 ½ cups.
2 firm pears, peeled and chopped in ½ inch pieces
2 green apples, peeled and chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste
1/2 cup dried cranberries
½ cup white vinegar
1/3 cup white sugar
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and very finely chopped
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 whole star anise *
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon salt
- Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl, cover and refrigerate
- Place in a heavy 2-quart saucepan over medium-low heat and
simmer, stirring often, until fruit is very tender, about 30 minutes.
- Chill. The chutney will keep in the refrigerator for a week.