Most of us think of spices and herbs as frivolous flavorings, but before the days of pharmacies, refrigeration and chemical preservation they were the guardians of our health.

Spices and herbs, upon which modern pharmacology was born, stimulate appetites, enhance digestion, digest fats, detoxify our blood, provide concentrated amounts of vitamins and minerals, preserve food and much more.

There are many who still think of food as medicine. Ginger and her spice sisters have long been long appreciated by food-as-medicine veterans for their warming and soothing effects. Ginger ale or tea was our mothers’ and grandmothers’ answer to a stomachache and nausea. Centuries before we took Tums or Protonix, herbalists suggested gingerroot for digestive upsets.

With its sweet-spicy flavor, ginger is one winter “medication” that won’t cause you to hold your nose and scrunch your face.

Although ginger is tops for herbalists, it delivers more than relief from rebellious stomachs.

Versatile ginger can be a hot-sweet culinary spice for holiday cookies and cakes, candy or preserves, stir-fry, warming tea, a palate cleanser between bites of sushi or a fresh, peppery note in a curry dish.

Teamed with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and clove, ginger forms the sweet spice sisterhood that can grace anything from a cake, pumpkin pie, French daube (beef stew) or curry to a soufflé or hot rum drink.

Ginger comes in several forms: fresh rhizome, dried and ground ginger, crystallized ginger and pink Japanese pickled sushi ginger.

Although may not be best to use them interchangeably, experiment a little and you’ll find new uses for each. Try overlapping different forms of ginger in the same dish or substituting pickled ginger for fresh in a stir-fry, curry or salad. Grace a cucumber salad with pickled or crystallized ginger, rice vinegar, salt and Asian sesame oil.

Fresh gingerroot should be smooth and firm with unblemished skin.

In the spring and fall you might be lucky and find very thin-skinned, tender young gingerroot.

Later, as the ginger ages, it tends to more fibrous with a thicker pale brown skin, which is easily peeled by scraping the skin with the tip of a teaspoon.

Gingerroot keeps well for a week at room temperature and weeks refrigerated uncovered. Cut the rhizome as you need it.

Dried, ground ginger is shelf stable for about a year; well-sealed crystallized ginger is good for several years.

Both are superb in savory dishes, particularly curries, and they shine in baked goods. Fresh ginger packs more punch and flavor; dried is milder and sweeter.

You’ll find crystallized ginger in thinly sliced coins or juicy chunks. Australian chunk crystallized ginger is the tastiest.

Japanese pickled ginger is made from young, tender ginger. Peeled and thinly sliced (with a new, sharp vegetable peeler) ginger goes into boiling water for less than a minute and then gets sprinkled with Kosher salt and refrigerated overnight.

The next day the lightly squeezed ginger is immersed in a mixture of boiling rice vinegar, sugar and water and packed into a glass jar.

When it cools, the ginger is refrigerated and ready to eat in a few days or a week.

Japanese eat pickled ginger with fried fish. Ginger is a natural digestive with fatty foods: it cuts greasiness and aids digestion, along with adding splendid flavor.

Gingery Tips

  • Peel gingerroot with a peeler or teaspoon. Slice into coins across grain. Stack thin coins and slice finely into a julienne. To mince, chop julienned ginger. Heat oil in a small skillet or wok. Fry julienned ginger until just golden; blot off excess oil. Use as delicious garnish for fish or soup.
  • Chinese cooks mince or pound coin slices of ginger and slip into marinades with garlic, soy sauce, rice wine or vinegar and Asian sesame oil.
  • Indian cooks peel, chop and purée gingerroot in preparation for curry making.
  • Refrigerate leftover peeled, diced fresh gingerroot in dry sherry or rice wine or freeze. Use liquids as part of the seasoning of other dishes or in marinades.
  • Infuse thinly sliced gingerroot into hot cream until it cools. Strain the cream, chill and whip it for ginger whipped cream. Try this on apple pie or cherry crisp.
  • Ginger classically teams with pears and chocolate. Peel, core and poach pears in white wine and maple syrup. Cool and stuff with crystallized ginger. Serve pears drizzled with melted chocolate.
  • Drop crystallized ginger into your afternoon cup of tea.
  • Dip crystallized ginger chunks in melted bittersweet chocolate for a quick after-dinner sweet treat.
  • Combine three forms of ginger in gingerbread, cookies or scones: bits of crystallized, fresh grated and ground ginger give ginger-lovers big, well-rounded ginger flavor.

Tassajara’s Fresh Ginger Gingerbread

Makes one 8-inch cake

3/4 C. all purpose flour

3/4 C. whole wheat pastry flour

1 t. baking powder

3/4 t. cinnamon

1/4 t. grated nutmeg

1/4 t. ground cloves

1/4 t. salt

1/4 t. powdered mustard

1/4 C. softened unsalted butter

1/4 C. brown sugar

3 T. peeled and grated fresh gingerroot

1/2 C. molasses

1/2 t. baking soda

3/4 C. boiling water

1/4 t. baking soda

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan. In a bowl, sift dry ingredients together up to and including the powdered mustard.

In another bowl, cream butter and brown sugar with a mixer until fluffy until well mixed. Add the ginger to the butter-sugar mixture.

In a large bowl, beat the molasses and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda together until the color lightens and bubbles form. Combine the boiling water with 1/4 teaspoon soda.

Fold the creamed butter-ginger mixture into the molasses and mix well. Stir in dry ingredients alternately with boiling water-soda, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in eggs.

Scrape the batter into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Golden Butternut Dal Soup with Ginger

Ghee has had the milk solids (that burn) removed by cooking and straining. If it’s not available substitute equal parts oil and unsalted butter.

Yields 8 to 10 servings

2-1/2 lb. butternut squash

3 T. ghee

1 large onion, finely diced

3 T. minced or grated fresh gingerroot

1 C. small orange lentils

1 to 1-1/2 quarts boiling water or chicken stock

1 C. coconut milk

Tarka

2 T. ghee

2 T. cumin seed

2 T. black mustard seed

1-1/2 T. brown sugar or jaggery

1 small dried red chili, stemmed

4 T. cilantro leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds.

Place squash cut side down on a sheet pan and roast in oven until tender, about one hour. Scoop out flesh and set aside.

Compost the skin.

Heat a soup pot over medium heat and add ghee. When melted, stir in onion and cook until soft. Add ginger root, lentils and half of the water or stock.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover pot partially. Cook until lentils are tender, about 25 minutes.

Place roasted squash in a food processor. Add coconut milk and enough of remaining stock or water to facilitate puréeing.

Purée mixture until smooth. Combine with the cooked lentil mixture and heat through.

For the tarka: heat ghee or butter and add seeds and sweetener.

When sweetener caramelizes to reddish brown, remove pan from the heat; stir in chili. After a few seconds pour this mixture into the soup.

Allow these seasonings to soak into the soup for several minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare a second tarka for spicier soup.

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with cilantro leaves.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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