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Ginger: A wonderful winter spice with many uses

With the holiday season in full swing, it is time to welcome back the annual traditions like company Christmas parties, caroling sing-alongs and holiday pot lucks.

One of the universal truths of these gatherings, aside from bad sweaters and tipsy eggnog-induced shenanigans, is the overflowing abundance of foods crafted in line with those holiday themes.

Tables swell with green tree shaped cookies, leaden fruitcakes and Santa Claus colored confections. Powdered sugar snowmen dance down the gingerbread-house-lined streets of candy cane lane. All of these sweets tend to combine similar flavors and smells, with mint, chocolate and vanilla playing happily with the perfuming warm spices like clove and cinnamon.

One of the more unsung spices in the canon of holiday flavors is ginger, a versatile ingredient that finds its way into all sorts of dishes sweet and savory the whole year round.

The ginger we cook and eat is actually the root-like rhizome of a flowering plant. It is consumed around the world in different forms such as fresh, pickled, candied and dried. It has a potent sweet and spicy perfume that packs a strong punch in even small increments.

Ginger has traditionally been used in its dried, ground form in America, especially during the holidays, when it is added to sweeter items like gingerbread and pie and cookies to balance sweetness with a layer of spicy complexity.

While dried ginger is lovely, it is not nearly as dynamic as the fresh variety, which is juicy, aromatic and multifaceted. The fresh and pickled forms are used more prevalently throughout Asia in places like India and China, where its pronounced flavor is used in countless dishes with other fragrant ingredients like garlic, chilies and spices to form the base of everything from curries to stir fries and soups.

Its versatility makes it as spot on in a pungent Vietnamese pork dish as it is in complementing a delicate raw fish preparation in Japan.

Ginger’s uses go far beyond baked goods and exotic dishes, as it is commonly used in teas and drinks, which can range from fresh slices steeped in hot water to ginger syrups infused into sodas and ginger beers. It also has been used for centuries for it’s medicinal properties, showing up in extracts, herbal remedies and dietary practices.

Ginger even makes its way into the lexicon of popular culture, where it is used as a somewhat mocking term for those exceptional individuals born with red hair. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those redheaded individuals.

You can find fresh ginger at any reputable supermarket these days, but even more exciting is the appearance of seasonal fresh ginger at local farmers markets in recent years. These are often wonderfully young, tender rhizomes that are simply sublime to use raw or cooked in just about anything.

To prepare ginger, it is best to know what you are using it for to decide how to break it down. The rhizome has a fibrous pale to golden yellow interior underneath a paper-thin light brown skin. To peel it, I like to use a spoon or the back of my knife to gently scrape away the skin.

For infusing just the flavor, without the texture, you can toss a slice or two into your tea or soup for a subtle hint of ginger essence. When employing in a stir-fry or long cooked dish, it is best to mince the ginger finely to minimize the long fibers, which can make for an unpleasant texture.

To do this, cut across the fibers, which run lengthwise, into coins, then slicing again into thin strips and again across the strips to form the fine dice. Another option for preparing ginger is to finely grate it on a microplane grater, creating a heady, juicy pulp.

Many of the holiday recipes you encounter for things like gingerbread will call for the dried, ground variety of ginger. To get the best results, make sure your dried ginger is stored properly and has been purchased at least since the last presidential election.

If you want to add a more unique touch to a recipe that calls for ground ginger, throw a teaspoon of the finely grated pulp of fresh ginger with the dried — it can be our little secret.

Whatever you find yourself cooking or baking this holiday season, try fitting a bit of ginger into the recipe, you’d be surprised at the magic even a hint of this magical ingredient can bring. Maybe it’s my redheaded bias or my proclivity for Asian ingredients, but I think even the coldest winter days can be perked up with a bit of ginger.

Healing Winter Ginger Spiced Green Tea Makes four servings

This is a tea I make for friends or myself whenever winter begins to wreak havoc on throats and sinuses. The ginger adds a spicy fragrance and slight acidity that helps to play off the sweet notes of agave nectar and spices to cut through the ills of the winter cold. Don’t have agave nectar? Use honey. You can substitute other sweet spices if you like. Want to get a little crazy? Add a pinch of cayenne to the proceedings to spice it up a bit.

4 bags of good green tea 6 teaspoons agave nectar or local honey 4 coin sized slices of peeled fresh ginger 4 Cardamom pods 2 Cloves 2 Star anise pods 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers 1 Lemon or orange, with juice and 4 strips of peel

Boil 8-10 cups of water and pour into a glass pitcher with green tea, agave nectar, ginger, cardamom, cloves, anise and lavender. Steep for 5 minutes or so, mixing to dissolve agave. Strain into four warm mugs and finish with a splash of lemon juice and peel in each mug.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.
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