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Ginger

Fresh ginger has the flavor of lemon tinged with fire. The name comes from a Sanskrit word that means "horn-shaped," which, if you look at ginger, and squint, and hold it just so, and the light is just right, well, it does look like horns. Sort of.

You're probably familiar with the ground version, since it's used widely in baking, but you may have never used fresh ginger. The flavor is quite different--more citrusy--and is definitely stronger. Anything you add it to will receive extra oomph.

It's now a part of Asian, Indian and Caribbean cooking. And soon, hopefully, yours, because once you've experimented with fresh ginger, you'll find uses for it everywhere. You can grate it onto chicken, steam it with squash, simmer it with carrots, marinate it with mangoes and poach it with fish. Its citrusy flavor adds life wherever it's used.

You may have passed fresh ginger by as you walked through the grocery store, and that's excusable considering its appearance. It's an odd-looking thing bound to elicit raised eyebrows and questions in the checkout lane. Frankly, it looks more like something you'd plant amongst your flowers than something you'd cook with. That's because it the rhizome of a tropical plant.

The pieces that you buy are called "hands." The pieces you break off are "fingers." Once you've seen it you'll understand why.

When buying ginger, look for sections that are plump with the skin stretched tight. If it has begun to wrinkle, pass it up--it's past its prime and headed downhill.

Store fresh ginger wrapped in plastic in the fridge for a month, or bury it in a small pot of soil in your kitchen window. You can even plant the pieces and grow your own ginger--large containers are best because ginger is frost sensitive and those that live where winters are cold can bring it inside for the winter. Now's the perfect time to plant it to give it a head start on the growing season. Divide it into pieces, each with a bud, or "eye," and plant them about three inches deep. Ginger needs well-drained, rich soil and warm temperatures to do well, so leave it outside when you climate allows it. To harvest ginger, cut the top off close to the rhizome, rinse off the soil and break the pieces into manageable sizes.

For long-term storage, freeze it. You can freeze whole ginger pieces, grated ginger or sliced "coins" of fresh ginger for stir-fries--it thaws quickly. A coin is simply a cross-section slice about 1/8 inch thick. To freeze them, lay the coins between pieces of plastic wrap then slip them into plastic bags. It's a simple matter then to slip a slice or two into your next marinade to give it some kick.

For stir frying, add a slice or two of ginger to the oil to flavor it, then remove it before you add the rest of the ingredients. Used this way or grated there's no need to peel it. It is very fibrous, though, (it is a root of sorts, remember) but if you cut it or grate it across the grain, you'll minimize the stringiness. If you want to soften the fire soak grated ginger in cold water for ten minutes or so, then squeeze it dry.

I love a slice or two of ginger in my hot or iced tea and lemonade--it gives it extra kick--but it's equally good mated with garlic. One of my favorite ginger uses is in this tangy salad dressing that's a cinch to make.

Orange Ginger Dressing

1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinega
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
2 teaspoons honey

Combine all the ingredients and it's ready to use. Refrigerated it will keep for several days.

Now if you've ever eaten sushi, you've been served pickled ginger. There it's used as a palate cleanser between bites, but I like to nibble on it all the time at home. You can even try adding a few slices in your next martini.

Pickled Ginger

1 cup shaved ginger root
1/2 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar

Scrub the ginger under running water (like a potato). Use a vegetable peeler to first peel the ginger and then use it to cut very thin slices anywhere from two inches to a 1/2 inch long. Cook it for one minute in boiling water and drain.

Next combine the sugar and vinegar in a small saucepan, and bring it to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let it cool, then place the ginger into a sterilized jar and pour the cooled vinegar over it. Cover and refrigerate it for a week before using for best flavor. Of course, I always have to test a little right away--purely for quality control, you understand. Pickled ginger will keep in the refrigerator for a month or more. As it ages, it will turn a pleasing pale pink.

Ginger is one of those herbs long touted for its medicinal properties and for good reason. It has been proven effective against motion sickness and nausea--which is welcome news to travelers all over the world--and has even been used to treat nausea in chemotherapy patients. So, your grandmother's remedy of a glass of ginger ale for an upset stomach wasn't off the mark after all.

About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.

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