ginger root 88.
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Whenever I make a cup of ginger tea, I'm impressed by ginger's power. As I begin cutting the gingerroot, its wonderful fragrance is released. I cut a slice in three or four pieces and steep them for a few minutes in hot water, with or without a teabag. From a single slice of gingerroot, I get a cup of flavorful tea.
I first came upon fresh gingerroot at a Chinese cooking course in Paris, where instructor Nina Simonds skillfully smashed ginger slices with her cleaver before putting them in a pot to make Chinese chicken soup. "Doing this helps release their aroma," she explained.
Fresh ginger is called gingerroot but is actually a knobby rhizome, or underground stem, with a tan skin and white or pale yellow flesh. Because of its palm-like shape, a piece is called a "hand" of ginger.
Experts disagree on whether ginger originated in India, China or southeast Asia. But there's no disputing that cooks in these regions are wild about it. Ginger, green onions and garlic are the basic flavoring trio of numerous Chinese dishes, from stir-fries to spicy orange beef.
In India, ginger starts off many curries. Often it appears in ginger-garlic paste made of equal parts of both flavorings blended with a little water. My friend Neelam Batra wrote about it in 1,000 Indian Recipes (Wiley, 2002): "Used universally in India and ground fresh every time the need arises (2 to 3 times on an average day), this paste is almost the first task of the morning cooking ritual."
Ginger-garlic paste flavors breakfast breads, fish, vegetables, meat, legumes, rice and salads. Batra refrigerates or freezes her ginger-garlic paste instead of making it every day.
Anyone who likes sushi is familiar with pink pickled ginger that usually accompanies it. Japanese cooks also use ginger in soups and sauces. Koreans seem equally enthusiastic about the root. Karen Hulene Bartell declared in The Best of Korean Cuisine (Hippocrene, 2002) that "ginger, the spice of life, enhances any recipe." She uses it in kimchi (spicy cabbage pickles) and in a fiery fish chowder with garlic, red-hot bean paste and sesame oil. Thai cooks match ginger with mint, chiles and soy sauce to flavor chicken and meat entrees. In Afghanistan, people use gingerroot to flavor "windy" vegetables like cauliflower and legumes, notes Helen Saberi, the author of Afghan Food & Cookery (Hippocrene, 2000).
Africans are also fond of the robust root. Before cooks in Ghana fry a fish, they rub it with a paste of gingerroot and chiles, author Dorinda Haffner writes in A Taste of Africa (Ten Speed Press, 1993). Moroccans consider ground dried ginger a basic spice for their tajines. These stews might be savory, like chicken cooked with saffron, lemon juice and olives, or sweet, like mutton with raisins, almonds and honey.
My Yemen-born mother-in-law used her copper mortar and pestle to pound pieces of dried ginger with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom to make hawaij cafe, or "coffee spice," for adding to Turkish coffee. A similar spice mixture flavors Indian chai, the sweet, aromatic tea.
In the Middle Ages, ginger accented savory European dishes, and in recent decades it's undergone a revival. Innovative chefs in Europe and North America prepare dishes such as salmon with ginger butter sauce and green salads with ginger-sesame dressing.
Ground ginger is good in honey cakes and chocolate desserts, but for more punch I use fresh gingerroot or candied ginger. Candied, or crystallized, ginger is among the oldest types of candies. Sweet and spicy, it's delicious on its own or as a garnish, for example on vanilla ice cream sundaes. It's made by cooking gingerroot in a syrup of sugar and water, then rolling the drained pieces in sugar.
People began using ginger for its health benefits. Batra noted that ginger tops the list of India's therapeutic spices, "valued as a stimulant to the digestive and circulatory systems." Nina Simonds wrote in A Spoonful of Ginger (Knopf, 1999) that Asians believe that ginger "cleanses the body of toxins from meat dishes" and prevents motion sickness.
Western medicine is finding evidence for ginger's healing power. The World's Healthiest Foods website (www.worldshealthiestfoods.com) cites research suggesting that ginger possesses powerful antioxidants that can help protect the body from disease.
Like garlic, gingerroot adds a more pungent flavor when added towards the end of cooking. Pieces of raw gingerroot pack quite a punch, so when I'm using ginger in a dressing or to finish a dish, I grate it.
When chopping ginger, first cut it in thin lengthwise slices along the grain. Cut each slice in strips and chop it. You can chop gingerroot in a food processor with a pulsing motion after cutting it in lengthwise pieces.
SWEET AND SOUR CHICKEN WINGS
Fresh ginger gives Chinese sweet and sour sauce a pleasant zip. For this easy appetizer, the wings are briefly roasted, then brushed with the sauce and baked.
1 kg chicken wings (10 wings)
salt and white pepper
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1â„4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons minced peeled gingerroot
2 garlic cloves, minced
1â„3 cup chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
a few drops hot pepper sauce, or cayenne pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 200Ëšc (400Ëšf). Cut off wing tips. Cut the wings apart at the joint. Lightly oil the roasting pan and put wings in the pan in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and white pepper on both sides. Roast for 30 minutes until meat is no longer pink; cut in thickest part to check.
Combine vinegar, soy sauce, ketchup, sugar, ginger, garlic, broth and cornstarch in a small saucepan and mix well. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens and comes to a simmer. Add hot pepper sauce or cayenne to taste.
Drain off fat from pan of wings. Brush wings lightly with sauce. Roast five minutes. Turn wings over and brush with sauce. Roast five to 10 minutes more or until glazed and browned. Serve hot. Accompany with remaining sauce for dipping.
Serves four or five as an appetizer or two as a main course.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley).