Zing is the thing with ginger

Spice: Distinctive flavoring is so versatile, it's used in both sweet and savory dishes.

January 20, 1999|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,Universal Press Syndicate

We don't think twice about adding ginger to gingerbread -- it's a key flavor. But what about brisket, biscotti or butter? If you use ginger only in its powered form, once a year for holiday baking, you're missing out.

Since the dawn of New American and global cuisines, North American chefs and cookbook authors have embraced all forms of ginger as essential flavorings for a variety of dishes. Fresh, crystallized and ground ginger ranks right up with garlic, lemons and pepper on their list of pantry staples. Even pickled ginger has moved beyond the sushi bar to garnish plates at some cutting-edge restaurants.

The reason is simple: Ginger's sharp, spicy flavor adds zing to sweet and savory dishes.

"I use it as often as I use garlic," says Sheila Lukins, cookbook author and Parade magazine food editor. She frequently adds fresh ginger or crystallized ginger to marinades and sauces.

"It's a natural with soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic," she says, adding that the combination goes well with flounder. But she doesn't limit ginger's applications to Asian-inspired dishes; she spikes all-American classics such as beef brisket and short ribs, too.

"For a fresher, garlicky bite, use the fresh ginger," she says. "If you want a sweet, yet bright flavor, use crystallized ginger and smooth it out with honey."

Lukins says powdered ginger is the most benign type. Although she uses it for baking, she stresses that it shouldn't be limited to sweets.

"People think of it like apple-pie spices," she says, "but it's a savory flavor, too." It melds with other spices in her Lamb and Prune Tagine, a sweet-and-spicy Moroccan-style stew.

Lukins is comfortable freewheeling with ginger in her kitchen. But most home cooks use it only when a recipe dictates a specific amount and type. "I don't think people should be afraid of it," she says. On the other hand, she cautions, "You have to know what you're doing with it.

"It's something you need to use a lot so you'll understand how it mellows out when it cooks and what a good, bright flavor it gives to dishes."

Using fresh ginger is second nature to executive chef Jim Anile of the Landmark Restaurant in Dallas. And some of his ginger tricks are simple enough for home cooks.

His white rice takes on the subtle perfume of ginger with little fuss: He lays thin slivers of fresh ginger on top of the rice, along with a piece of lemon grass, then cooks the rice as usual.

Anile also steeps ginger slices in soup broths and sauces and tosses ginger into stir-fries -- always during the last few minutes of the cooking.

"Don't cook [ginger] too long, because it changes the flavor," he says. "The oil dissipates with more heat." When he wants ginger to be the most noticeable flavor note in the stir-fry, he adds it last. "Usually, the last thing you put in the wok is the most pungent."

Anile steeps ginger slices in broths off-heat, then puts the broth in the refrigerator; or he simmers the ginger in the broth for just a few minutes.

Fresh ginger even makes its way into pastries. "We've steeped a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger in lime juice to make lime curd for tarts," says Anile. "It goes well with citrus."

Ground and crystallized gingers are more commonly used to make desserts and confections. Some restaurants in Europe set out candy bowls filled with crystallized ginger pieces instead of after-dinner mints. Chefs on the QE2 luxury cruise liner have been known to pair crystallized ginger slices with truffles and after-dinner coffee.

On this side of the Atlantic, people pop ginger like candy, too, says Stephen Ward, vice president of Sea Wind International, a wholesale importer of dried fruits and vegetables.

"Some gourmet companies are dipping [crystallized ginger slices] in chocolate and selling it as confection," he says. It's a project you could undertake at home, for a fraction of the cost of the retail product.

But the ginger-chocolate pairings can go further. Try making Chocolate-Dipped Gingerbread Biscotti, which uses both crystallized and ground ginger to spice up the classic Italian cookie. Or buy gingersnap cookies and dip them in melted chocolate for a quick snack. Folding mini-chocolate chips and chopped crystallized ginger into gingerbread cookie batter puts a new twist on the traditional Christmas cookie.

Once you start experimenting with ginger, you just might get hooked on using it in all forms year-round.

Here's a guide to the forms of ginger used in cooking and baking. Each has a distinctive flavor and pungency, so don't try to substitute one for another in a recipe:

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