Hot and cool, invigorating yet soothing, ginger dances on the palate. For millennia, cooks worldwide have taken advantage of the seasoning's affinity for both sweet and savory foods. Ginger was a precious commodity in the time of Confucius and as valuable as salt and pepper in the Middle Ages.
Today this tropical rhizome is playing to audiences in the New World. While a timid teaspoon once sufficed for most Western cooks, now we measure fresh ginger by the handful, ground ginger by the tablespoon. And we have more choices than ever. Crystallized and pickled ginger, ginger juice, and other convenient forms are emigrating from Asian and specialty food shops to mainstream supermarkets. Look for them in the Asian foods or baking section. (The various forms of ginger are described in "Ginger Jargon," below.)
Here are a handful of recipes packed with the lively flavor.
A good source for prepared ginger products is Royal Pacific Foods in Monterey, California. (800) 551-5284 or www.gingerpeople.com.
• Fresh. The most flavorful ginger choice ― slightly hot on the palate and refreshing, with citrus overtones. Look for smooth, heavy hands, as the knobs of the rhizome are called. As ginger loses its freshness, it shrivels and may mold. Store unwrapped in the refrigerator. Peel off the papery skin with a vegetable peeler or small, sharp knife, then slice or mince the fibrous flesh. Excellent in relishes, soups, curries, and meat and fish dishes.
• Candied in syrup. Chunks of ginger cooked in syrup. Young, very tender pieces prepared this way are called stem ginger. Chop the chunks and add to baked goods, fruit salads, or carrot soup. Drizzle the syrup into tea or mix into salad dressings.
• Crystallized. Drained candied ginger rolled in sugar. Should be moist and tender. Store airtight. Cook with vegetables such as carrots; sprinkle on cereal and waffles; use in salads and desserts; stir into cookies, scones, and ice cream; nibble as candy.
• Chips. Chopped crystallized ginger. Use in the same way.
• Ground. Pulverized dried ginger. Pungent and earthy. Use in baking, in curries ― anywhere you want a hit of spicy heat.
• Juice. The essence of ginger in handy bottled form. Hot, earthy ― a little goes a long way. Splash into fruit juice, carrot juice, and tea, or over grilled fish. Once opened, keeps up to two months in the refrigerator.
• Pickled. Sweet-sour, hot, and slightly salty. Made from young ginger, it may be a natural ivory color or dyed red, in paper-thin slices or matchsticks. Great with sushi (it's also called sushi ginger), salads, and sandwiches.