Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

GARDEN FRESH : Ginger: The Underground Spice

July 28, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

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.

*

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.)

*

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.

*

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|