Friday, 21 June 2013

using GINGER

Like many people my early life experience with ginger was limited to ginger snap biscuits (yum) and crystallised ginger (yuk).  I didn't know how ginger grew or what it looked like.  Apparently I wasn't alone in this lack of knowledge because now that I know something about ginger other people expect me to answer all their questions.  My hubby has always had a heart for farming and had done bits and pieces over the years.  Twenty two years ago we moved to a house in a sub-tropical forest which was next to a ginger farm. The first thing I noticed was the lovely smell, a peppery lemon scent that drifted on the air while they were harvesting ginger.  Our two boys worked on the ginger harvest as their first jobs.  It was only for a week or so at a time and they enjoyed doing man's work outdoors, coming home for lunch with mud encrusted feet and legs and knowing how well they did when they were paid by the bucket at the end of each day.  We got to know what ginger looked like then and I began to use it in stir fries.

Harvesting ginger
A few years later we wanted to do some farming and decided to go into organics. While the land was in conversion we grew a variety of herbs, including parsley, basil, rosemary, garlic and also shallots. And various vegetables and flowers were tried at different times - I loved the sunflowers.  It was hard work, learning as you go and we soon found the packing and transport was the most difficult side of the business.  By this time our neighbour had retired and was no longer growing ginger.  We were looking for something a bit easier to ship to the city and the idea of organic ginger came about.  So, WE became organic ginger farmers.  It's the 'Royal Wee'  Big R says, as I don't do any actual hands-on farming.  So I don't plough or plant or weed or fertilize. I don't dig or pull up or wash or trim the rhizome but it's still a 'we' because I label boxes, help with packing, do the necessary paperwork, phone calls, emails, bill paying etc and that adds up to a normal little we.

Ginger growing in our paddock
Ginger is native to Asia and used in many Asian and Arabic dishes and also has uses as a medicinal herb.  It's often described as pungent, (strong/sharp taste) but that varies from one type of ginger to another.  It goes well into sweet or savoury dishes. Use it fresh, dried, cooked, raw or sugary - crystallised ginger is ginger boiled in sugar and then rolled in sugar crystals.  Ginger can also be preserved or pickled in vinegar - a little like ginger sauerkraut.

Small piece of new season ginger with flags
To grow - Ginger grows underground like a root, but is called a rhizome.   Several leafy stems, or flags, grow above the ground to the height of about a metre.  Planted in spring it takes around six months to mature and then you can pull up the early harvest ginger, which has a light, sweet flavour.  About three months later the green flags, begin to yellow and wilt. The rhizome stops growing but it can be left underground for a few more months.  Ginger picked at this stage is late harvest ginger. To pick the ginger you loosen the soil and pull up the rhizome. The flags can be snapped off and then it should be washed and the little stringy roots trimmed away.  When peeled the flesh is creamy coloured, fibrous and moist.  The early harvest ginger has a pinkish flush and is light in flavour.  Late harvest ginger is thicker skinned and deeper in flavour. 

To buy - when shopping for ginger, choose a rhizome that is firm and smells fresh. You don't want it if it's been sitting around for a while, feels rubbery or has black squishy spots.

To store - everyone asks me how to store ginger.  I've heard that it's good to store it in a plastic bag in the fridge but I've found that makes it soft and soggy.  I've also heard people say they freeze ginger to make it easier to grate, but I have not had any success with that.  I leave it on the bench or in the fruit bowl and it's fine for about ten days, depending on how old it was in the first place.  If you need to cover it use a brown paper bag. The best idea is to only buy what you need and use it within a few days.

To cut - first chop the ginger into easy to handle pieces and peel off the skin. It can be a little hard to hold being wet and small, like a piece of carrot.  I use a knife and slice it into discs.  I find these are easy to hold in one hand while I peel around the edge.   Then it can be chopped into chunks or thin strips.  I've heard people talk about grating ginger but I find that difficult because it is so fibrous.  I once bought a bamboo ginger grater that was not successful for me as it didn't grate the ginger and then it went moldy in our sub tropical summer. A food processor could be better than a grater as it would save the juice.  Only peel what you are using as it won't keep without it's skin.  I suppose that's why you can also buy powdered ginger and preserved ginger.

Slice, peel, chop - and into the pot

To cook - add ginger slices or strips to stir-fries, curries, soups or stews or drop into the water when cooking rice.  Some say that it's best to add ginger at the end of the cooking as the flavour can fade with stewing.  I love pumpkin soup with ginger added and I use it with olive oil to marinate chicken pieces and lamb steaks.
Many recipes are available for baking cakes, bread and biscuits with ginger, though most sweet recipes use powdered ginger (some people find too much powdered ginger causes bloating).  Recipes can be found on line for ginger jams, chutneys and sauces too.

To serve raw - chop finely or grate (if you have a better grater than I have) and sprinkle over salads and sandwiches, or over hot meat and vegetables. I have sometimes used the vegetable peeler to make very thin slices.

To drink - Apart from the popular ginger ale, ginger beer and ginger wine you can make ginger tea.  Drop one or two teaspoons of finely chopped fresh ginger into a mug, and cover with boiling water. Let it sit for five minutes, stir and drink as tea, either hot or cold.  You can add honey if you want a sweet drink.  Or, you could drop a disc of ginger into your cup of black tea, instead of lemon. Much better in black tea though as milk coats the ginger and the flavour is sealed in.

For medicine - My herb books say that ginger contains potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6 and copper.  It is traditionally used to calm digestive troubles, motion sickness, morning sickness and dizziness. It can also help with symptoms of colds and flu - hot ginger tea can be comforting. Crushed ginger can be used in a poultice for arthritis.

There is a warning for ginger use, which also applies to garlic.  Ginger, especially in large doses, can interfere with medications that slow blood clotting as ginger is a blood thinner and can interact with that medication. Anyone on medication for heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure should be careful so check with the doctor, pharmacist or naturopath if you plan to have ginger on a regular basis. 

Using fresh ginger once or even twice a week should be fine for most people.  I have Asian friends who say they comfortably use ginger and garlic in their family meals every day.

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