Ginger is the common name of the plant Zingiber officinale, thought to have originated in Southeast Asia -- quite possibly China. Some sources state that the finest varieties of ginger actually originated from the West Indies or from India. Whatever its origins, today it's cultivated in a number of tropical countries from West Africa to the Caribbean. It's even cultivated in parts of the United States (e.g. Florida). It's a perennial reed-like plant with sword-like leaves that grows two to four feet high and produces remarkably fragrant flowers. It grows best in shade and rich, well-drained soil.
The part that we use is the root or rhizome. The young pinkish roots can be pickled or boiled in water to make ginger tea (often sweetened with honey and served with a squeeze of lemon juice). The slightly older root, knobby and woody looking and tan in colour, is what we customarily find fresh in the grocery stores. It's also commonly found in its dried and powdered form. The rule of thumb is to substitute two tablespoons of freshly grated ginger for every teaspoon of ground ginger called for (although it should be noted that ground ginger tastes quite different from the fresh). Here's a bunch of information on its storage and preservation.
Ginger root has long been used as a a home remedy -- all over the world -- for colds and the flu, often taken in the form of ginger tea at the first sign of a chill or the onset of a cold. It's also recommended to combat nausea and vomiting, especially if they stem from motion or morning sickness, or chemotherapy. Its effect on the digestive system is reported to extend to alleviating gas and indigestion, as well as being beneficial for colitis and for cleansing the colon. It's also thought to combat menstrual cramps and hot flashes. It's known to promote sweating and, through this, the elimination of toxins from the system. It's thought to stimulate circulation, and is therefore sometimes taken as a remedy for cold hands and feet. It's also been shown in some studies to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. For more detailed information on its benefits, check out the section on it featured on the (not vegan) World's Healthiest Foods' website.
How to grow it:
Using a firm, heavy and unblemished piece of root purchased in a grocery store, ginger can be grown indoors in a pot if kept in a warm and moist atmosphere. In the north, it's ideal to start it indoors around January, then move it outside once all chance of frost has passed. Ideally, night temperatures should be at least 55 F. If you choose to keep your ginger indoors, place your pots on pebbles in trays with water to keep the air around them humid; if you move it outside, make sure that it's given good shelter from the wind. In warmer climates with longer growing seasons, it can be planted directly into an outdoor garden in the spring. Ginger supposedly thrives in sunny sites in foggy coastal areas where it can receive full sun to partial shade; however, if grown in an area where sufficient water and humidity will be issues (i.e. if it's just plain ol' too dry and hot), try to ensure that the plant is in the shade at least a third (and up to half) of the day.
What you do is get a root at the grocery store, cut it into 1- to 2-inch pieces, each with at least one "eye" or knob on it, and place them (knob upwards) at least 2-3 inches deep in pots of rich soil that needs to be kept moist, albeit with really good drainage so that the roots don't rot. If after a couple of weeks, no shoots have appeared, dig up your pieces of root and check them out. If they haven't changed, clean them off and use them (i.e. in cooking). If you spot little ivory bumps on them, replant them; this means that shoots will soon appear. Don't give the shoots more than around 2 hours of sun a day until they're a few inches high. Ginger is a heavy feeder, so make sure to work a good compost mix into the soil, wherever you do grow it.
In Zone 7, ginger will freeze over the winter, but the roots will re-sprout in the spring. In Zone 6 or colder, ginger will need to be brought indoors over the winter. Otherwise, you can just harvest them completely and start from scratch for the next growing season. Baby roots -- still pink and mild-tasting -- can be harvested off the main roots early in the season and used to make pickled ginger. Otherwise, harvest the large hand-like clumps of roots in the fall once the plants have withered.
Basic pickled ginger
How to make quick ginger beer (which is, of course, non-alcoholic)
(Listening to: The Replacements' Let it Be)
Sunday, March 23, 2008