GINGER WAS a well-bred girl. She was taken to a baseball game by her father but sat on her hands, closed-mouthed, through eight innings. Finally, in the ninth, her father could stand it no longer. He turned to his reticent daughter and shouted, "Ginger, Root!"
In real life ginger root looks like a beige arthritic finger. It always seems to come in huge nobs even though most recipes call for one sliver the size of a quarter. The flavor of ginger is pervasive. It's a taste that appeals or appalls, one you won't forget. Gingerbread, ginger ale, ginger beer: You may like them, but these are only mild extracts. The source, the real thing, is ginger root, a spice to be approached gingerly.
But the most important thing to know about fresh ginger is how it tastes in comparison to its dried counterpart -- moist, peppery, crisp and clean.
There are a few naive cookbooks which say 1/8 teaspoon powdered ginger equals about 1 tablespoon grated ginger. This is not true -- fresh ginger and dried ground ginger have nothing in common except name and origin. The fresh root has a pungent, soapy perfume (oil of ginger is used in some aftershaves) while powdered ginger is dusty and bitter, and it smells like wet sneakers.
This is because harvested dried ginger is washed, scraped, boiled, peeled and left to dry in the sun for about a week. So if a recipe calls for ginger, try substituting fresh.
Ginger root is an ancient Chinese and Hindu spice, mentioned by Confucius 2,500 years ago, and is one of the first Oriental spices grown in Europe. It was popular in 11th-century England, where it was referred to in leech books, and expensive enough in the 14th century to be sold for 1 shilling 7 pence per pound -- about the price of a good sheep.
It was Henry VIII's cure for the plague and Greek physician Dioscorides' cure for indigestion and antidote to poison. Herbalists still recommend a ginger/yogurt drink as a cure for indigestion, but doctors say that is bunk.
Leftover ginger can be kept in the refrigerator, but it will shrivel up in a few weeks. Or it can be stored in a tightly-covered jar soaked in sherry or vodka. (The alcohol can be added to soups or fish dishes.) Or you can put the rest of the nob in the freezer and it will last indefinitely. It is easier to grate frozen.
There are sweet prepared gingers that are available in Oriental markets -- candied, stem, crystallized and preserved ginger -- but they are seldom used in savory dishes. Pickled ginger has become popular recently as a condiment for sushi and sashimi.
At $1.49 a pound, freshly granted ginger is an inexpensive spice to experiment with -- add to soy sauce and sherry to make a marinade for grilled steak or chicken. It is a great wake-up for fresh vegetables and salads or fresh fruits. "W" suggests adding a dash of ground ginger when sifting flour for chocolate cake -- it heightens the flavor.
Listed below are a few recipes that were invented during a five-week fresh ginger fit. You should not substitute their look-alike, Jerusalem artichokes. STEAMED GINGER ROCKFISH (4 servings) 1 whole medium-sized rockfish, scaled and gutted but with head intact 1 tablespoon sherry or rice wine 3 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons grated ginger 1 tablespoon fermented black beans (optional) 2 scallions, chopped up to middle of green part
Wash fish. Mix seasoning ingredients in a small bowl. Fill a wok with a few inches of water and place fish on the rack of a bamboo steamer. (If you don't have a steamer, go out and buy one. They are inexpensive, invaluable things that can be used to steam all kinds of food.)
Pour the sauce over the fish and steam for about 15 minutes. (Watch water to make sure it doesn't evaporate). Remove head if you don't like it and serve fish on a warmed platter. PICKLED GINGER (Makes 1 cup) 1/4 pound fresh ginger root 1/2 cup rice vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce
Wash and peel the ginger root and cut with the grain into very thin slices (a vegetable peeler is good for this). Put into a bowl, cover with cold water and let stand for 30 minutes. Drain the ginger, then drop into a saucepan of boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil over high heat, then drain and cool. Sprinkle with a little salt and place in a bowl.
In a saucepan combine the rice vinegar, sugar, salt and soy sauce; stir to mix. Bring to a boil and simmer just until the sugar has dissolved. Cool liquid and pour over ginger, mixing well. Let the ginger stand for at least an hour before using it as a garnish for sushi or other dishes. It will keep indefinitely in a covered jar in the refrigerator. -- From "The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking" COLD GINGER CHICKEN (4 servings) 1/2 frying chicken 2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and sliced into matchsticks 2 tomatoes, sliced 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger 4 tablespoons soy sauce 2-1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar (or white vinegar) Dash of freshly ground white pepper 3 tablespoons sesame oil 2 teaspoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt
Wash the chicken, place in a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. To make marinade, combine ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, 2 tablespoons sesame oil and sugar in a bowl.
When chicken has cooked, plunge into cold water until cool. Remove bones and skin, pat dry. Marinate chicken in the ginger mixture in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Place tomatoes on the bottom of a serving plate. Place sliced cucumbers in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for 30 minutes and rinse with cold water. Shake dry and place on top of tomatoes. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Remove chicken from marinade (reserve), slice into strips and place atop garnish. Pour marinade over chicken. CHICKEN SPICED WITH GREEN GINGER (4 to 6 servings) 1 chicken (2-1/2 to 3-1/2 pounds) 1 piece (2 inches) green ginger* 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed 1/2 teaspoon cloves, crushed 3 cardamon pods, crushed and seeds extracted 1 stick butter
*Green ginger comes from the young or green roots and is preserved in brine. It is available in Oriental groceries in a tin. Once the tin is opened the ginger should be strained and submerged in sherry if it is to be kept for further use.
Clean chicken and wipe dry. With a sharp knife make a few criss-cross incisions over the breast, legs and wings. Place ginger, coriander, salt, peppercorns, cloves and cardamons in a mortar and pestle and grind until thoroughly curshed. Cream butter in a bowl until soft and add crushed spices until a smooth paste is formed. Fill the incisions with spiced butter and rub the remainder inside the chicken and all over its skin. Let stand in refrigerator for about 2 hours.
Bake chicken in oven at 450 degrees for 1 hour, or cook wrapped in foil in a 350-degree oven until tender. Either way, just before it is cooked, uncover breast to allow browning. Serve with cooked rice with the chicken juice poured over as flavoring. ORANGE GINGERBREAD 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 1/2 cup butter 1 egg, lightly beaten 1 cup molasses or maple syrup 2-1/2 cups flour 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder 6 tablespoons grated ginger 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/2 teaspoon salt Grated rind of 2 oranges 1 cup orange juice, at a simmer
In a bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Stir in beaten egg and molasses.
Sift together dry ingredients. Add grated orange rind and stir well to blend.
Combine the molasses and flour mixtures. Gradually add hot orange juice, beating constantly to keep batter smooth. Beat for 3 minutes.
Pour or spoon into a buttered 2-quart baking dish or an 8-by-12-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until tester comes out clean. Cool slightly before turning out onto a rack.