- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

When I make a cup of ginger tea, I’m impressed by the power. As soon as I begin cutting the ginger root, the wonderful fragrance is released. I cut a slice in 3 or 4 pieces and steep them for a few minutes in hot water, with or without green or black tea. From a single slice of ginger root, I get a cup of amazing flavor.

I first came upon fresh ginger root at a Chinese cooking class where instructor Nina Simonds skillfully smashed ginger slices with her cleaver. “Doing this helps release the aroma,” she said. Next she put it in a pot of water with a chicken and scallions to make Chinese chicken soup. Only a few slices were needed to impart a pleasant, delicate aroma to an entire pot.

Fresh ginger is called ginger root, but it’s actually a knobby underground stem with a tan skin and white or pale yellow flesh. Experts disagree on whether the plant originated in India, China or Southeast Asia, but there’s no disputing that cooks in these regions are wild about it. Ginger, scallion and garlic are the basic flavoring trio that begins many Chinese stir-fries and accents a variety of dishes.

In India, ginger root starts off many curries, often as part of ginger and garlic paste made of equal parts of both flavorings blended with a bit of water.

Anyone who likes sushi is familiar with its accompanying pink pickled ginger, which is good with any cold fish or meat. However, Japanese cooks find many other uses for ginger root, using it to accent teriyaki sauce, glazed chicken wings and soups.

Korean cooks seem equally enthusiastic about the root. In “The Best of Korean Cuisine” (Hippocrene), Karen Hulene Bartell uses ginger root in kimchi (spicy pickles of cabbage and other vegetables) and in a fiery fish chowder flavored with chilies, garlic, red-hot bean paste and sesame oil.

Thai cooks match ginger with mint, chilies and soy sauce to make a popular chicken entree. Ginger’s sweet-sharp flavor is a must in the peanut sauce served with satays, the kebabs of Southeast Asia.

In Afghanistan, ginger root flavors cauliflower and legumes, notes Helen Saberi, the author of “Afghan Food & Cookery” (Hippocrene), and for dessert they make ginger jam with cardamom.

Moroccans consider ground dried ginger one of the basic spices for the dishes they call tajines. These ginger-flavored stews might be savory, such as chicken and carrots cooked with saffron, garlic, lemon juice and olives, or they could be sweet, as is the famed combination of mutton stewed with raisins, almonds, cinnamon and honey.

At Middle Eastern groceries, you’ll find dried ginger in pieces. My mother-in-law, who was born in Yemen, used her copper mortar and pestle to pound dried pieces of ginger with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom to make what she called “coffee spice” for adding in small amounts to black Arabic coffee. A similar spice mixture is used to make Indian chai, the aromatic sweet tea that’s popular in North America.

In the Western Hemisphere, ginger root is part of Caribbean cuisine. It is used with onions, garlic and chilies to flavor such dishes as curried goat stew. Another island favorite is ginger beer, which is not really beer but a drink made from ginger root syrup.

Ginger has a sweet side that extends far beyond the familiar gingerbread and the crisp cookies called ginger snaps. Crystallized ginger, also known as candied ginger, is among the oldest types of candies. Sweet and spicy, it is delicious on its own or as a garnish. It’s made by cooking ginger root in a syrup of sugar and water, then rolling the drained pieces in sugar and letting them dry.

At fancy food markets, you’ll also find ginger preserves, which make a tasty topping for toast.

I like to add ground ginger to honey cakes and chocolate desserts. Or I might add fresh ginger root or crystallized ginger, which provide more punch. To make scrumptious ginger ice cream, I make vanilla ice cream and add a little diced crystallized ginger when it is nearly set. For a faster dessert, I simply use a few crystallized ginger slivers or slices to top a vanilla ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce.

When buying ginger root, select firm, fat roots with smooth skin. Avoid wrinkled, dry or shriveled roots or any that show signs of mold. Asian markets occasionally sell young ginger, sometimes called green ginger or spring ginger. The peel is lighter and tinged with pink. This ginger is milder in flavor and less fibrous than mature ginger and doesn’t need to be peeled.

In ancient times, ginger was stored in jars of sand, and special ceramics known as ginger jars were made for this purpose. Copies of such ceramics are sold today as decorative pieces.

These days, we usually keep ginger in the refrigerator. Some experts recommend wrapping it in a paper towel and then in plastic wrap before refrigerating. Others keep peeled ginger in rice wine or dry sherry in a glass jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several months. I find it keeps well for about three weeks in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Ground ginger is another matter. Store it in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place. Before using, sniff it to be sure it is still pungent.

I usually peel ginger root because the skin can be quite tough. I do so with a vegetable peeler or by scraping it with a paring knife. Some people use the peel to make ginger tea, but my recommendation is that if you’re using ginger to infuse flavor and are planning to remove it from the dish before serving, simply scrub it; there’s no need to peel.

The easiest way to mince ginger is in the food processor. Like garlic, ginger root adds a more pungent flavor when added toward the end of cooking. Pieces of raw ginger root can pack quite a punch, so when I’m using it to finish a dish or in a dressing, I add it grated.

Asian markets carry special ceramic ginger graters that do the job efficiently, but you can also use the fine holes of a box grater. For a more subtle effect, a Japanese trick is to use ginger juice. Simply squeeze the juice out of freshly grated ginger root and add it to sauces or dressings.

Sweet and sour chicken wings

Chicken wings glazed with a Chinese sweet and sour sauce have become one of my favorite appetizers. Fresh ginger root gives the quick and easy sauce a pleasant zip.

2 pounds chicken wings (about 10 wings)

Oil, for bottom of roasting pan

Salt and white pepper

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons peeled and minced ginger root

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup chicken broth or water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

A few drops chili oil or hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper, to taste

Cut off wing tips; reserve for stock. Cut wings apart at joint. Lightly oil roasting pan. Put wings in pan in 1 layer. Sprinkle with salt and white pepper on both sides. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven 30 minutes, or until meat is no longer pink. (Cut into thickest part to check doneness.)

Combine vinegar, soy sauce, ketchup, sugar, ginger root, garlic, broth or water, 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 chili oil, hot pepper sauce or cayenne to taste.

Drain off fat from pan of wings. Brush wings lightly with sauce. Roast 5 minutes. Turn wings over and brush with sauce. Roast 5 to 10 minutes more, or until glazed and browned. Serve hot. Accompany with remaining sauce for dipping. Makes 4 to 5 servings as appetizer, or 2 as a main course.

Easy curried eggplant

Fresh ginger and Indian spices give this stew of Mediterranean vegetables a distinct flavor. Serve it as a vegetarian entree with rice or as a partner for roast chicken or grilled lamb chops.

1 medium eggplant, unpeeled (1 pound)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon peeled and chopped ginger root

5 medium garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

½ teaspoon turmeric

1/5 teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided

Salt

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

2 teaspoons tomato paste

Cut eggplant in 1-by-1-by-3/4-inch dices. In a heavy 4½-quart stew pan, heat oil, add onion and ginger root and cook over low heat 7 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Add garlic, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and 1 tablespoon cilantro and cook mixture, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add eggplant dices and salt, and mix well over low heat until eggplant is coated with spices. Add tomatoes and cook mixture over high heat, stirringuntil juice flows from tomatoes and begins to boil.

Mix tomato paste with 2 tablespoons water, add to eggplant mixture and bring to a boil, stirring.

Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring often, for 40 minutes or until eggplant is very tender and mixture is thick. Taste for seasoning. Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with remaining tablespoon of cilantro. Makes 4 servings.

Moroccan lamb tajine with prunes, almonds and sesame seeds

Ground ginger, saffron and cinnamon give this stew its special flavor. Serve it with couscous or with rice, as well as carrots or green beans.

2½ pounds lean lamb shoulder, fat trimmed, meat cut in 1-inch cubes

2 large onions, minced

Freshly ground pepper

1½ cups beef or chicken broth or water

Large pinch of saffron threads (about 1/8 teaspoon)

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon ground ginger

11/4 cups pitted prunes

2 tablespoons honey

Salt, optional

1/3 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted (see note)

1 to 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (see note)

Combine lamb, onion and pepper to taste in a heavy casserole. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add broth or water, saffron, cinnamon stick and ginger; push cinnamon stick into liquid. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, turning pieces occasionally, for 1 hour or until lamb is tender.

Add prunes and cook uncovered over medium heat for 15 minutes or until just tender. Add honey and cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring gently, for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt if needed. Discard cinnamon stick. Serve hot, garnished with almonds and sesame seeds. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Toast almonds on baking sheet in preheated 350-degree oven for 7 minutes or until lightly browned.

Transfer immediately to a plate to cool. Toast sesame seeds in a small, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, frequently shaking pan, for 2 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer immediately to a plate to cool.

Chocolate almond ginger cake

Crystallized or candied ginger is a great complement for the chocolate in this light yet moist cake. Chop it with a heavy knife; it’s too sticky for the food processor.

You can wrap and keep the unfrosted cake up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Once frosted with whipped cream, it will keep up to 8 hours in the refrigerator.

Butter for greasing pan

3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons strained fresh orange juice

1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut in 4 pieces

½ cup whole blanched almonds (about 21/4 ounces)

½ cup plus 1½ teaspoons sugar, divided

1/3 cup very finely chopped crystallized ginger (about 1½ ounces)

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 large eggs, separated

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup whipping cream, well chilled

6 to 8 thin slices crystallized ginger, optional

Lightly butter a round 9-inch layer cake pan. Line base with parchment paper or foil; lightly butter paper or foil. Melt chocolate with orange juice and 1/4 cup butter in a medium bowl over nearly simmering water. Stir until smooth. Remove from pan of water; let cool.

Grind almonds with 3 tablespoons sugar in a food processor to a fine powder. Transfer to a medium bowl; add chopped ginger. Sift flour and cornstarch over mixture; mix thoroughly.

Beat egg yolks in a large bowl. Add 1/4 cup sugar and beat at high speed for 5 minutes or until mixture is pale and very thick.

Stir in orange zest and chocolate mixture. In a large dry bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar to soft peaks. Gradually beat in 2 tablespoons sugar. Beat at high speed until whites are stiff and shiny but not dry.

Gently fold about 1/3 of whites into chocolate mixture until nearly incorporated. Sprinkle about ½ of almond mixture over chocolate mixture; fold in gently. Lightly but quickly fold in another 1/3 of whites, then remaining almond mixture, then remaining whites, just until batter is blended.

Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven for 28 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out nearly clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Run a metal spatula carefully around cake. Invert cake onto rack.

Carefully peel off paper and cool cake completely. Crust is crumbly; some may fall off. Carefully turn cake onto another rack, then onto a platter with crusty side down. Refrigerate cake at least 1 hour before frosting.

In a large chilled bowl, whip cream with remaining 1½ teaspoons sugar until stiff. Using a long metal spatula, spread whipped cream evenly over cake; smooth side and top. Garnish with crystallized ginger slices, if using. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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