This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:

For more than 3,000 years, the root of the perennial herb ginseng has been a key element in traditional Asian medicine. But ginseng also finds its way into the kitchen.

There are two varieties; panax, or Asian ginseng, and panax quinquefolius, American ginseng. In Asian culture it's believed that Asian ginseng has a heating effect of yang, while American ginseng has a cooling effect of yin. The proper use of both is believed to bring balance. Dried American ginseng has been exported to China since the mid 1700s, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The wide price range of fresh American ginseng, from $20 to more than $150 per pound, reflects the age of the plant and how and where it's grown. Native American ginseng grows naturally in mature hardwood forests of the eastern United States, from Maine to Alabama, and in the Midwest. Wild ginseng is a protected species that must be harvested, according to state rules approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Wild" ginseng is also the name given to plants grown by seeding forested areas. More than 400 landowners in Virginia grow wild ginseng, according to Andy Hankins, an extension specialist in alternative agriculture at the Virginia State University in Petersburg. Ten-year-old, woods-cultivated roots currently sell for approximately $140 per pound.

The plant is also field- cultivated in a number of states. The leader is Wisconsin, particularly around Wausau, where there are more than 1,000 growers. The far less expensive fresh roots available at area Asian markets are field-grown American ginseng. We found beautiful, fresh roots at Super H Mart in Fairfax (10780 Lee Hwy; call 703-273-0570.)

HOW TO SELECT: Choose plump, firm, light-colored roots, avoiding darker shades and roots that are bruised, mushy or shriveled.

HOW TO STORE: Keep in a sealed plastic bag in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator for no more than 10 days.

HOW TO PREPARE: Ginseng has a slightly bitter taste that may not appeal to everyone. Its culinary uses are somewhat limited. With that said, boil sliced ginseng root alone or with fresh ginger for a tea. Flavor honey by adding a whole, steamed root to a honey bottle. For an herbal liquor, submerge a slender, whole fresh root in a bottle of vodka.

In China, a ginseng salad is made of seasoned, thinly sliced root that has been soaked in water overnight. A Korean favorite is kyesamt'ang -- a Cornish game hen stuffed with sweet rice, dates, chestnuts and ginseng long-simmered in chicken broth.

-- Walter Nicholls