10 Aug 2010

All Things Ginger

Not a spice to slip in unobtrusively, ginger has a tangy freshness, light spiciness, warmth, and mellow sweetness that complements a range of dishes, from sweet to savory. It can be a dominant flavoring, or it can work in conjunction with other flavors. Fresh ginger works with pretty much everything: fruit, vegetables, poultry, fish and all kinds of meat, though it does particularly amazing things to the flavors of pork. 
It plays a significant role in Japanese cuisine though in England, fresh ginger is generally associated with Asian cooking, in the broadest sense of that term (forgive me if I'm a tad out of touch with culinary practices in English kitchens...), while the powdered root finds its way into a whole range of sweet treats - gingerbread men and ginger cake (the sticky Lyle's Jamaican variety) bring back especially happy memories of childhood. And then there's crystallized ginger dipped in chocolate; now that's a truly indulgent after dinner treat. Oh and there's ginger ale, of course, which, with whiskey and a wedge of lime, is undoubtedly the best way to drink bourbon if you're not into single malt. 

The highly creative style of cooking I found in Japan inspired me to think again and discover new and innovative ways of using this fabulous ingredient, and this recipe combines elements of both Japan and China; the ingredients (especially the hijiki seaweed) are distinctly Japanese, the cooking technique gives it its Chinese touch - "nouveau Chinese", perhaps? The dish works well as a side vegetable and also makes a great addition to J-style noodle dishes like yakisoba or yakiudon. 

Gingery Stir-Fried Vegetables Chinese Style
1 cucumber, julienned
1/2 carrot, julienned
70g garlic chives cut into 4-5 cm lengths
25g dried hijiki seaweed
sesame oil (1 tbsp for frying, 1/2 tbsp to finish)
2-3 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tbsp soy sauce

1. Rinse the hijiki in water and leave to soak for 5 minutes. Drain and cut any longer pieces down to size. Place a cup and a half of water, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and the hijiki into a small saucepan, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer until most of the liquid has been boiled off. Set aside. 
2. Heat a tablespoon of sesame oil in a frying pan or wok. Add the carrot, cucumber, garlic chives and hijiki in that order, and stir-fry. Add the grated ginger and soy sauce, and toss to combine the ingredients. Stir in half a tablespoon of sesame oil for extra flavor. 

キュウリ(千切り)1 本
人参 (千切り)1/2~1/3 本
ニラ (4~5㎝のざく切り)70g
ひじき 25g
生姜の絞り汁 小さじ2~3
醤油 大さじ1

1. ひじきをボウルに入れて洗い、水をはって5分おき、ザルにあげる。長いものは切っておく。鍋に醤油大さじ2と水1と1/2カップを合わせ、ひじきを入れて火にかける。沸騰したら中火で少し汁が残るくらいまで煮含める。
2. フライパンにごま油を熱し、人参、キュウリ、ニラ、ひじきの順に炒め、生姜の絞り汁、醤油を加えてさっと混ぜ、仕上げのごま油を加える。

For a more authentic take on ginger in Japanese cooking, see: One more thing from ginger.

Run, run, as fast as you can!
You can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!
OK, you'll have to excuse me while I get a little over-excited here. I've just made gingerbread men for the first time since I was about six years old and they worked, kind of. They got a little friendly in the oven and they're not very delicate, or pretty, but they still look the part and for me that constitutes a major success. 
I should explain. I love baking, but biscuits are definitely my downfall; they taste alright, but  my doughs are always too soft and more often than not what comes out of the oven bears little or no resemblance to what went in.  Hence the excitement, though the gingerbread dough is renowned for being well-behaved and it's often the first thing British mums use to lure their kids into the kitchen. As a child I had a strict order for eating my gingerbread men's extremities in and part of the attraction undoubtedly comes from the tale of the gingerbread boy who leaps out of the oven to lead many people on a wild goose chase through the woods, though it's a cautionary tale as he gets too big for his own wee boots and is eventually eaten by a fox. 

This is ginger cooking English style. Gingerbread men are traditionally associated with Christmas, but they're also a classic teatime favorite fragrant with ground ginger, cinnamon and cloves, and basically all you need is a good pot of tea. They're traditionally made with golden syrup and black treacle, which are very British favorites and, as is often the way with the things I crave most, almost impossible to come by in here in Japan. I made sure to pick up a tin of Lyle's golden syrup when I was in Sydney at the end of last year and, half a year later, it's finally making its culinary debut. For want of treacle, I substituted molasses and it appears to have done the trick. 
Gingerbread men are very flexible, you can vary the volume of spices to suit your taste and the cooking time, too: shorter if you prefer your men on the soft side, longer if you want a proper crunch. On closer inspection, mine are looking a little dark, which probably means I'm in for a broken tooth or two; I think the tessellated rolling pin is going to have to go, too. It's designed for pie crust and has a textured surface that stops the pastry from sticking to the rolling pin, but it leaves its mark - my gingerbread men look like they've been run over! 
There are thousands of recipes out there, but this one worked for me and I hope it'll work for you too. 

Basic Gingerbread
75g soft brown sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp black treacle (or molasses)
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch ground cloves
finely grated rind of 1/2 orange
95g butter (or margarine)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
225g plain flour
currants for decoration

Place the sugar, syrup, treacle (or molasses), 1 tablespoon of water, spices and rind together in a large saucepan. Bring to boiling point, stirring all the time. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter (or margarine), cut into lumps, and the bicarbonate of soda. Next, stir in the flour gradually until you have a smooth, manageable dough - add a little more flour, if you think you need it. 
Cover the dough and leave in a cool place (the refrigerator if it's hot out) to become firm (at least 30 minutes). 
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 3 millimeters thick and cut out the gingerbread men. Press currants into the dough to stimulate eyes, noses, mouths or buttons down their fronts. 
Arrange the gingerbread men on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes or until they feel firm when lightly pressed with a fingertip. 
Leave to cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack. 
Call your friends, brew a large pot of tea and eat in whatever order takes your fancy. 

Rooting through my recipe books, I found this: pages from a magazine (probably Family Circle, a cookery magazine along the lines of 'Kyo-no-Ryori' that my mother subscribed to when we were kids) that must date back to the mid-seventies. 
I guess I've missed baked ginger goods more than I realized: there's a whole stash of sweet gingery recipes that have come all the way from home, including 'Sticky Ginger Puddings', 'Dark Ginger Cake' and 'Ginger Shortbread', which looked so good I had to give it go, and right now, my kitchen is awash with the aromatic scent of ginger. The recipe suggests that you serve it with a melon and ginger sorbet; now that sounds divine, though I'm all out of melon, so I'll be eating this with bright, white frozen yogurt instead. 

The shortbread is very simple and takes all of about 10 minutes to prepare. 
100g plain flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
50g ground almonds
100g butter, softened
50g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 170C. 
Sieve the flour and ground ginger into a bowl. Mix in the almonds. 
In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Work in the flour mix to form a ball of softish dough (you may need a little extra flour). 
Pat the dough out onto a baking sheet into a 20 centimeter round (it should be about 5 millimeters thick). Smooth with a rolling pin. Mark into wedges and prick lightly with a fork. Bake for 40-45 minutes until pale gold. Leave for 2 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Remember to cut the shortbread when it's just baked and still soft. 

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