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The Rich Rhizome- by Ron Skaar - December 2015

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The Rich Rhizome- by Ron Skaar - December 2015

by Ron Skaar

photo by Jon Russo

Native to tropical Asia, the Indians and Chinese have used ginger as a spice and tonic root since very early times. Ancient Greeks were the first to bring dried ginger to the Mediterranean and later on, the Romans exported the root from India.

Ginger was used lavishly by the Romans but its usage nearly vanished after the fall of the empire. When the Arabs took over the spice trade, ginger became an important item of commerce between the east and medieval Europe. In the middle ages a preserved form of ginger was imported. It doubled as a camouflage for old or bad meat and was used in sweets.

Second only to pepper, ginger was the most traded commodity in Europe. In those times, spices were more precious than gems. By the 14th century, one pound of ginger is equal in price to the cost of a whole live sheep. A century later ginger is being imported from tropical Zanzibar, where it was planted by the Arabs.

The great explores of the 15th and 16th century we’re seeking sea routes to secure the spice trade. During these travels, ginger root was planted and became a favorite in the Caribbean. Later in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth created the first baked men, out of the very popular gingerbread. English taverns begin sprinkling powdered ginger on their drinks which will eventually evolve into ginger beer and ginger ale.

Found today throughout tropical climates, ginger lends its name to 45 genera. These include galangal or Thai ginger and small seeds of the ginger family called grains of paradise, native to West Africa. Turmeric is also a dried rhizome from the ginger family, which has been cultivated in India since prehistoric times. The brilliant yellow spice is a large part of curry powders weight and colors most of our mustards.

Another cousin is cardamom, the third most expensive spice behind saffron and vanilla.

Not much known beyond India until the 19th century, German immigrants brought the seeds with them to Guatemala, which is now the biggest cardamom producer in the world. The cardamom capsules ripen at different times requiring hand harvesting.

Today, Nordic countries bake with 10% of the world’s crop while 80% gets mixed into coffees blended in the Middle East.

The best dried ginger comes from Jamaica. Fresh ginger has a much richer and sweeter flavor than the dried root or powder. Most of our fresh ginger now comes from Hawaii,

their harvest running from December to June. Fresh ginger has a remarkable culinary range, similar to the quality of lemon juice that refreshes with bright floral and citrus aromas. Its mild, peppery pungency also compliments flavors rather than dominating them.

Gingers medicinal properties have been resonating since antiquity, yet there isn’t any scientific evidence to support its effectiveness in controlling nausea. A recent study has linked ginger as a tonic to offset the effects of chemotherapy. Perhaps the ancients had it right regarding gingers medicinal value. Besides, its culinary uses are infinite!

The addition of fresh grated ginger to recipes that call for dried ginger will ad an extra pungency to your holiday baking. I’ll bet ole’ Elizabeth would enjoy this new take on gingerbread.


CHOCOLATE-GINGERBREAD COOKIES

 

For cookies, whisk together in medium bowl:

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Cream in the bowl of standing mixer:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup solid vegetable shortening

½ cup packed dark brown sugar, beat until fluffy

Add:

1 large egg, at room temperature

½ cup molasses

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled

Incorporate the flour mixture into the wet mixture in three batches. Beat between additions. Divide dough into three equal parts, shape into disk and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate dough for a couple hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. On lightly floured surface, roll out 1 disk of dough to ¼ inch thick. Using 3-4 inch cookie cutters, cut into shapes and place on prepared sheets. Bake the cookies for about 7 minutes, let them cool for 5 minutes and transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Frost the tops with royal icing. This dough is so easy to work with; it would probably make a great shell for an incredible chocolate mouse tart. Makes 60 3-4 inch cut out cookies. Keep in airtight container for up to 5 days, or freeze.