That pink pile of pickled ginger that comes with your sushi is probably from China or Japan. And unless the slices are beige, chances are this garnish, next to the green wasabi, contains food coloring. So it's refreshing when you first see that cream-colored fresh "baby" ginger is naturally, yet shockingly, pink at its tips from where green stems shoot forth. The nude pieces naturally blush a faint rose (a pink that can be further amped up with raw beet) when brined in rice vinegar, as the Japanese do with this tender young ginger to make their now-ubiquitous sushi condiment, gari.
What's less omnipresent is ginger that is actually grown in the U.S. That, however, is changing. Asian countries, such as India, China and Nepal, produce much of the world's ginger. Steamy Hawaii is the only American state with real commercial cultivation of this coveted culinary and medicinal crop, though a bacterial soil disease and extreme wet weather has caused a significant decline in the harvest there.
So small, mostly organic, farms around the country are stepping up to fill the void by offering this delicacy — the juicy, mild, swollen ginger instead of those old fibrous roots — that's early harvested come fall, in temperate states, just before the real chill sets in. The last place I expected to find this tropical rhizome was in Maine. Yet several intrepid farmers are tending this young ginger in heated greenhouses and plastic high tunnels, with pretty decent results.
Perhaps no New England farmer has more ginger cred than native Mainer Ted Sparrow, who is 81 but too active to retire. Sparrow first learned about ginger cultivation working as a sugarcane industry consultant in Hawaii more than 50 years ago. Last year, his Sparrow Farm in Pittston, Maine, started selling fresh ginger (and its more floral cousin, turmeric), a perfect complement for the fresh organic cranberries the farm is known for. His wife and business partner, Karen, plans to incorporate their ginger into the not-too-sweet jars of cranberry sauce she cans for market.
Continental U.S. farmers harvest young ginger from mid-September into early November, just as those cranberries come on. So act fast. Otherwise, try Asian markets (mostly in April and May) for these new hands of "spring ginger," actually a fall crop as it is here, just overnighted from subequatorial regions. Still, you'll find much fresher, gossamer-skinned specimens at the farmers market now. North Carolina-based East Branch Ginger distributes its organic ginger seed (pieces of the rhizome wintered over in a heated greenhouse until mature) to about 40 states and into Canada, scrambling to keep up with the demand.
"Baby ginger can't be grown that far afield and shipped many miles without it damaging or growing mold," says East Branch's Susan Anderson, who first tested ginger for Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine. "That's why you don't see baby ginger in the supermarket. It really has to be grown in a local radius to be marketed very soon after harvest."
This perishable ginger emerges about six months after planting, while grocery store ginger hardens in the ground for almost a year. Digging up a shock of rhizome growth branching off an old "mother" root, Sparrow says growing ginger is similar to growing potatoes. They both grow from seed pieces of the mature crop, which farmers pre-sprout before planting, then hill up with soil whenever fresh growth appears. Like new potatoes, young ginger has that almost translucent skin that rubs right off. It's less fiery and fibrous than gnarled roots and easier to cook with since no peeling is required. It's mild enough to even eat raw. The whole root freezes well, for grating into soups and stews throughout the winter.
The delicate flavor and texture is best for pickles, syrups (think cocktails) and quick stir-fries, or preserved foods such as fermented gingered carrots and Korean kimchee. Gallit Sammon Cavendish, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who married an organic farmer in Maine, says she'd never seen young ginger before moving to the state, despite having cooked at the Waldorf Astoria and Café Daniel. She and her husband, Chris, just harvested their first ginger crop, which Gallit Cavendish is candying in a certified kitchen. Once the semi-perishable product passes inspection, the couple plans to sell the crystallized ginger at area markets.
Local, young ginger now graces Maine's finest restaurant menus and is even brewed into a line of kombucha. A mead — wine made with ginger's natural partner, honey — is in the works and will be released this winter by Maine Mead Works. The only barrier to culinary exploration is the $15 per pound cost of this labor-and-input-intensive, still rare but increasingly popular niche crop.
The jar of organic, natural-colored ginger I bought is too cloying, tastes overcooked and is a product of China "where ginger began," the label says. It's more satisfying — and easy — to make your own. This recipe is adapted from pickled ginger recipes Linda Ziedrich developed for both her comprehensive The Joy of Pickling (Harvard Common Press, 2009) and a Fine Cooking article. Chris Churilla, an Oregon bartender, goes light on the salt when he pickles fresh ginger with apple cider vinegar and sugar. Jennifer Burns Levin, who blogs at Culinaria Eugenius, recommends adding a slice of raw beet to the brine to naturally color your pickles bright pink. My dad recently pan-seared some Maine-caught, sushi-grade yellowtail tuna steaks, the perfect vehicle for this palate-cleansing ginger.
Makes about 1 cup
4 ounces fresh ginger (washed thoroughly but no need to peel if young and thin-skinned), sliced paper-thin with a mandoline or vegetable peeler
2 cups water
Several thin slices of raw beet (optional)
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus an extra sprinkle
1/2 cup rice vinegar (cider, white wine vinegar may be used)
2 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste)
Put the ginger slices into a bowl, barely cover them with cold water and let stand 30 minutes.
In a saucepan, bring the 2 cups of water to a boil while you drain the ginger. Add the ginger and cook, stirring to soften, about 30 seconds. Drain the slices in a colander, tossing to make sure they don't retain water. (This blanching step can be skipped if young ginger is especially fresh and not fibrous.)
Sprinkle the ginger (and the raw beet slices, if using) lightly with salt and put in a lidded jar, preferably first sterilized with boiling water. Add the vinegar to a nonreactive saucepan, and bring it to a boil, stirring in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Use a funnel to pour the hot liquid over the ginger, mixing well (it should completely cover the slices).
Tightly cover the jar, allow it to cool to room temperature and refrigerate. The pickled ginger, which is ready to eat after several hours, keeps well in the refrigerator for up to six months.
Chef Aaron Park of Henry and Marty restaurant in Brunswick, Maine, created this appetizer (or side dish) out of early fall produce he spotted at the nearby Bath Farmers Market. He grabbed sweet organic corn, young ginger and "red hot" plums. He created an end-of-season succotash with Asian flavors. The fish sauce and ume plum vinegar were my additions, but I think Park, whose food often reflects his Korean-American heritage, would approve. Red bell pepper or fresh tomato could be substituted for the fresh plums.
Serves 2 as an appetizer or side dish
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (Park used melted clarified butter)
2 tablespoons young baby ginger (washed well but no need to peel), minced
2 ears fresh corn, shucked and cut off cob (almost 2 cups raw kernels, can use frozen)
3/4 cup fresh red plums, diced
1 tablespoon sake or Chinese Shaoxing rice wine
Asian fish sauce, to taste
Ume plum vinegar, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 to 3 cups baby kale or arugula (for garnish, optional)
Melt the butter in a sauté pan, cast iron skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the minced ginger and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the corn and plums (if using bell pepper add before the corn) and stir-fry another minute. Deglaze the pan with sake and stir in a couple dashes of fish sauce and/or ume plum vinegar, to increase the dish's umami factor. Add salt (if needed) and freshly ground pepper to taste. Plate on a bed of baby kale before serving.
I made jewel-like candied cranberries last year but had never attempted crystallized ginger. It's an easy treat that will wow guests and yield the added gift of ginger syrup for homemade soda and adult cocktails. At Ted Sparrow's Maine farm in October, ginger is dug up from humid greenhouses just as the cranberries are first being raked. That's how I decided to candy these two together. It gave the resulting syrup a nice blush, too. I gave some to a pregnant friend suffering from morning sickness and have just been nibbling on them for dessert or as an afternoon pick-me-up. There's hardly a baked good that doesn't benefit from the addition of crystallized ginger. Candied Ginger-Cardamom Bars are a well-received favorite.
Makes about 1 pint, plus 1 cup reserved ginger syrup
1 pound young ginger (I subbed in almost 2 cups fresh cranberries and 1 knob fresh turmeric for some of the ginger)
1 cup sugar, plus extra sugar for coating
1 cup honey (or just use 2 cups sugar total, but I wanted honey-ginger syrup)
Salt, a pinch
6 pods green cardamom (also in ginger family), optional
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional; only add if you want to preserve the ginger in syrup and keep it from crystallizing)
Scrub any dirt off the young ginger. Using a mandoline, vegetable peeler or very sharp knife, cut the ginger into 1/8-inch coins. Put the ginger in saucepan, cover with the water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer at least 15 minutes, until tender. Remove the ginger with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon, reserving the water.
Add the sugar, honey and cream of tartar (if using) and pinch of salt to the reserved water, stirring over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add ginger slices and cook over medium-high heat until the syrup's temperature approaches (but stays just under) 225 degrees F (about the consistency of thin honey). Add the cranberries (if using) and remove from the heat and let stand for at least an hour and up to overnight.
Transfer the ginger (and cranberries) with a slotted spoon to a wire rack or large mesh strainer set over a tray, letting them dry in a warm place until no longer that moist. Reserve the ginger syrup for use in drinks. Toss the dried fruit in granulated sugar, shaking off the excess sugar (which is now ginger-flavored and also worth reserving). Crystallized ginger can be stored in an air-tight container for several months, but you'll probably gobble it up and chop it up to mix into baked goods long before then. If pieces are still too moist, they can be further dried in a 170-degree oven before storing.
Oregon mixologist Chris Churilla combines fresh ginger juice with bourbon, dried fig purée, sweet vermouth and bitters and in another cocktail with gin, lychee, lemon and coconut foam. I decided to go a simpler route, opting for a vintage Trader Vic's margarita called an El Diablo. I adapted this recipe from a new classic cocktail menu bartender Brandon Wise devised for Paley's Place in Portland, Ore. Next time, I'll make my own ginger beer or even a wild-fermented ginger "bug." Rick and Deann Groen Bayless's Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012) encouraged me to replace the cassis with other red fruity liquors and homemade ginger beer (just ginger syrup and seltzer).
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces blanco (silver) tequila
3/4 ounces fresh lime juice (reserving lime twist or wheel for garnish)
1 teaspoon freshly grated young ginger (or to taste, optional)
1/2-ounce creme de cassis (or substitute Campari)
1 ounce ginger syrup (reserved from crystallized ginger) plus 1 ounce sparkling water (or substitute 2 ounces ginger beer)
Dash of Angostura bitters (omit if using already bitter Campari)
Ice cubes, to taste
Add all ingredients except sparking water or ginger beer and ice to mixing tin. Shake and double strain into Collins glass, filled with ice, to taste. Top with ginger beer or seltzer. Garnish with a lime wheel or twist and a dash of Angostura bitters (optional).
Vinegary drinks—kombucha, shrubs—are all the rage now. I first learned about switchel, the old-timey thirst-quencher of which Laura Ingalls Wilder writes, from a recipe printed in the Thymes, the monthly newspaper published by the food co-op I belonged to in Corvallis, Ore. Then I first tasted this bracing "American heritage beverage," sweetened only with Vermont maple syrup, at a Food Book Fair reception. The brew mixes well with whiskey and rum, or into a Switchel Stout & Stormy. It soothes an upset stomach or sore throat, and is long known to farmers as haymaker's punch. This recipe is adapted from the Sagadahoc MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) chapter, which sells the nostalgic drink at the annual Common Ground Country Fair in September. Domenica Marchetti's post on American Food Roots also inspired me.
Makes about 1 average pitcher's worth
1 to 1 1/2 quarts cold water
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses (or if too strong for your taste, use more mild honey)
2 tablespoons ginger-honey syrup (reserved from crystallized ginger)
1 tablespoon grated young ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried ground ginger
1 lemon, freshly juiced, plus extra slices reserved for garnish
Pour all the ingredients into a pitcher or jug and stir or shake well until blended. Adjust water, acids, ginger or sweeteners, to taste. Serve over ice, with lemon slices or crystallized ginger as an optional garnish. Splash on a little sparkling water, if desired.