August 30, 2020

Let's Drink to Ginger

A Ginger Fizz

I grew up associating ginger with ginger snaps, ginger ale for an upset stomach, and ginger chicken at our family's favorite Chinese restaurant. These are fond memories, but ginger (Zingiber officinale), and particularly fresh ginger, offers so much more. For most of my life, I used ginger exclusively in dried powder form. Fresh ginger was a foreign concept to me, until I grew my own. Now, with fresh ginger from my own garden, I especially like ginger's zesty contribution to beverages - think soda, smoothies, tea, and kombucha. The motto Expect the Unexpected comes to mind.

Let's start with ginger soda. Mass-produced soda tends to be super sweet with artificial flavors and colors. When you make your own soda, you have total control over all the ingredients. By reframing soda this way, you can turn soda into a healthier drink. You can combine flavors. You can leave out the sugar. You can experiment. My sweetheart makes a ginger-infused simple syrup that we keep handy in the refrigerator. We combine it with carbonated water to make what we call a Ginger Fizz. 

To make a ginger-infused simple syrup, place two cups of water, two cups of sugar, and two cups of sliced ginger root (which is actually the rhizome) in a pot, simmer for 45 minutes or more, cool for ten minutes, and strain out the ginger slices. You don't need to peel the ginger. Store the simple syrup in a closed bottle in the refrigerator. The relative amounts of sugar, water, and ginger is entirely up to you. If you want more or less of that strong ginger flavor, adjust accordingly. Do note that sugar is something of a preservative, so the higher the proportion of sugar, the longer it will last.
Straining the sliced ginger

For a Ginger Fizz (ginger soda), combine one part ginger syrup to three parts carbonated water. For the carbonated water, I use a sparkling water maker, but you can also buy seltzer from the store. You can add more syrup or more carbonated water to deliver a stronger or weaker ginger flavor. If you abstain from sugar and sweeteners, you can make an unsweetened soda. Make a ginger decoction sans sugar in place of the syrup. If you are a honey devotee, you could substitute honey for some of the ginger syrup.

I am not a big fan of sweetened drinks, but when I came in this morning, dripping summer sweat after weeding the garden and taking down a papaya, I was ready for a big cold drink. Homemade ginger soda hit the spot! Although I do not indulge, I have been told that adding a little bourbon makes for an excellent adult beverage. Ginger soda is spicy, sweet, and pungent, plain or fortified.
Candied ginger

But wait; there's more. Do you remember the ginger slices left over from making the syrup? Don’t let those zesty bits of deliciousness go to waste. Add them to a stir fry, soup, or stew. Chop them up and mix them into a bowl of yogurt. If you have a sweet tooth, you can go deep and indulge it by making candied ginger. If you are a baker, you have a new element to create with, chopping up the candied ginger and adding it to banana bread, pound cake, oatmeal cookies, or any other baked delicacy for a tangy, sweet kick.

Using ginger in its raw form brings out the intense complexity of its flavor. I had been experimenting with fresh/frozen turmeric in smoothies, so the concept of fresh ginger in a smoothie was an obvious extension. I found that there's no real need to peel ginger, other than trying to follow someone’s recipe, so I cut off a thumbnail sized hunk of ginger and threw it into my smoothie for two. What a flavor blast! My next ten smoothies all had a hunk of ginger thrown in. It works well in a leafy green smoothie, in a sweet fruit smoothie, in a high-dairy smoothie, and all the various combinations I have tried. 

Storing ginger in the freezer is my icy little secret. Until five years ago, I had never considered freezing ginger, because it sounded like extra aggravation. First I'd have to wait around for it to thaw. Peeling ginger is challenging enough, but peeling thawed-out ginger sounded daunting. Then I'd probably have to grate a mushy lump. I have only attended one Garden Club meeting, ever, but that is where I learned that you can grate frozen ginger directly. No peeling is necessary and it is relatively easy to grate, because there is no juice to deal with. As expected, freezing extends the shelf life. In the refrigerator, ginger lasts a couple of weeks/months as it dries out, but frozen ginger should last until your next harvest. I can harvest ginger once and use it all year. 

I now usually use fresh/frozen ginger instead of the powdered form. Both cooking and drying mellows the spicy kick of ginger. In my opinion, powdered ginger actually tastes different. It's sharper in one way, but toned down in others. I looked into ginger's chemical components to get some perspective on this. Fresh ginger gets some of its pungency and aroma from gingerol. According to Wikipedia on August 29, 2020, "Cooking ginger transforms gingerol via a reverse aldol reaction into zingerone, which is less pungent and has a spicy-sweet aroma. When ginger is dried or mildly heated, gingerol undergoes a dehydration reaction forming shogaols, which are about twice as pungent as gingerol." My taste buds have been vindicated by science.

Speaking of chemical properties, studies have investigated gingerol for its many pharmacological properties, including antibacterial, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antioxidant, neuroprotective and gastroprotective. The health claims for ginger could fill a book, but much of the scientific research has focused on the chemical activity of its constituents or animal research. Traditional medicine has recommended many uses for ginger, including fever reduction, a cold and cough remedy, nausea relief, and digestive aid; but there is a paucity of scientific study concerning ginger's clinical impact on people. Regardless, many people add ginger to their diets feeling they benefit from it. Medical note from a non-professional: ginger will not give you gingivitis. 

Drawing by Franz Eugen Köhler, 1883, Public Domain

Before planting ginger, think about how you will water it and how you will harvest it. Ginger does not like to go dry. I grow ginger in the dappled shade of a clump of bamboo in containers of fertile soil with a drip emitter in each pot. I only have to run the irrigation for a few minutes a day.

Growing ginger in containers

In the winter, the leaves die back and the plants go dormant. That's when I harvest the rhizome (root) and plant up new containers for the next year. Loose, easily draining soil makes harvested rhizomes easier to clean. To harvest, I let the dirt dry out a bit, turn the container upside down and dump the contents. I cut off the plant tops and roots, shake the dirt out of the rhizomes, and get splashed and muddy while power hosing down all the crevices. Once clean, I freeze the rhizomes in a freezer bag. 
This is somebody else's very clean harvested ginger.
When I dig it up, it is full of dirt.

There are a couple of decisions you'll want to make, if you decide to grow ginger.
  • Where will you get your original plant material? You can get a piece of rhizome from somebody who is already growing it, order some online or from a catalog, purchase some at a farmers market, or even a supermarket. It's possible that supermarket ginger has been treated with a growth retardant to prevent sprouting in the store, so buy organic ginger if possible.
  • When do you want to plant? In my area, planting in February gives ginger a full ten months of our warmest weather, before it dies back. But you could plant almost anytime.
  • What kitchen gadgets might you want? I use a grater, a sparkling water maker, and a high-powered blender. None of these are required, but do give it a little thought. For example, I can throw a frozen chunk of ginger in a Vitamix, but I would need to grate it up first before adding to a regular blender.
  • When do you want to harvest? You can harvest somewhat immature ginger with very little skin or fully mature ginger that will have a thicker skin and stronger flavor. Gardeners generally extol the glory of harvesting as much or as little ginger as they want, at the moment they need it. You just pull the clump out slightly, break off the bit you want, and carefully replant the clump in the soil. Or you can dig around a few inches from the main stems and look for a small rhizome. I've never done this, but it sounds good in theory. It might make for some dirty hands, when you're getting ready to make dinner.
That's the beauty of having your own garden. Each of us can go about it our own way. Variety is the spice of life, and ginger ratchets up the spiciness.

For my friends in colder regions: I only came to grow ginger in containers by accident. I first planted it in the ground, but a few weeks later, I couldn't find the plant. Had it died back or was one of the newly sprouted weeds my beloved ginger? I decided to plant ginger in a container, where I wouldn't lose track of it. I have planted it that way ever since. Ginger plants don't like the cold. If you live in USDA hardiness zone 7 or lower, grow your ginger inside and bring it outside during the summer, once the temperatures get into the 60s. Ginger is one plant that doesn't mind partial to full shade, so it should fare pretty well indoors by a window, as long as you keep the soil moist. Since ginger thrives in humid conditions, your indoor ginger plant might welcome an occasional misting.
There are many types of ginger. Pictured above (center) is shampoo ginger.
The roots are reputed to be so bitter, that they are not worth eating.

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