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Zing is the thing with ginger ; Spice: Distinctive flavoring is so versatile, it's used in both sweet and savory dishes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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:

* Fresh ginger: Also known as ginger root, fresh ginger technically isn't a root -- it's a rhizome, or underground stem. Look for this tan, knobby-fingered "hand" in the produce section of the supermarket. Choose plump, weighty pieces that are firm to the touch. If the skin is wrinkled, pass. Store unpeeled ginger in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. Wrap it in plastic if you will not be using it for several days; it will keep for two to three weeks. Discard ginger that turns moldy.

Chinese cooks peel fresh ginger before finely grating or slicing; however, Barbara Tropp, restaurateur and author of "The China Moon Cookbook," notes that there's no harm in using unpeeled ginger. If you prefer to peel, use a vegetable peeler or paring knife.

* Ground ginger: This is dried ginger that has been finely ground. For the best flavor, use the freshest ground ginger available, not the 2-year-old bottle in your spice rack. Ground ginger stored for more than six months in your kitchen is past its prime. To avoid wasting ginger and to ensure a fresher supply, buy small amounts from health-food stores. Store tightly covered in a dark place, away from heat. Use it in savory dishes, such as stews and soups, as well as in sweet baked goods.

* Crystallized ginger: Sliced or cubed fresh ginger that has been "candied" by cooking in sugar syrup and rolling in granulated sugar is called crystallized ginger. Although most commonly used in desserts, it can also be added to sauces and marinades. Some people eat it like candy, since the concentrated spice plays well with the sugary sweetness.

Prices for crystallized ginger vary from about $7.50 a pound via mail order from Pendery's (call 800-533-1870) to $12.99 and $17.99 for sliced and cubed varieties at specialty grocers.

Price doesn't necessarily indicate quality, according to Ward. He says that Australian crystallized ginger tends to be pricier than Thai ginger, possibly because of higher labor costs. In any case, he suggests letting your taste buds be your guide. He prefers the Thai ginger for its stronger bite and "hotter" flavor.

* Pickled ginger: This sushi-bar staple is a paper-thin sheet of fresh ginger pickled in rice-wine vinegar. Several slices are commonly served as an accompaniment to sushi or as a garnish to Asian-inspired entrees. You can buy it at Asian markets.

Here are some easy ways to incorporate ginger into your cooking:

* Add 1/4 teaspoon fresh grated ginger to 1 cup whipping cream along with 2 tablespoons sifted brown sugar. Use it to top lemon, apple, pear and chocolate desserts -- or gingerbread.

* Mix 1/4 teaspoon grated ginger, 2 teaspoons lemon zest and 2 teaspoons lemon juice into 1/2 cup softened butter. Use to top grilled fish steaks; beef medallions or steaks; or sauteed or steamed vegetables, such as green beans or carrots.

* Mix 1/4 teaspoon grated ginger, 2 teaspoons orange zest, 2 tablespoons orange juice and honey to taste to make a sweet butter for biscuits or muffins.

* Add grated ginger, grated orange zest and orange juice to taste to your favorite barbecue sauce recipe for brisket or spareribs.

* Add thin ginger slices to vegetable-beef stir-fries during the last few minutes of cooking. Use the frozen Asian stir-fry vegetable packages to save time. Saute garlic and onions first, then add beef, vegetables and ginger. Season with soy sauce.

* Whisk minced crystallized ginger into honey for a sweet-and-spicy accompaniment to biscuits.

* Steep fresh ginger in chicken broth for an Asian soup base; add chopped cilantro, green onion, mushrooms and noodles for a meal in a bowl.

* Sprinkle store-bought ice cream with chopped crystallized ginger. Or add fresh grated ginger or crystallized ginger to home-made ice cream custard before freezing.

* Grate fresh ginger and mix with orange juice, lemon juice and vegetable oil to taste. Drizzle over sliced roasted beets.

Boneless Ginger-Hoisin Chicken Thighs

Serves 8

1/2 cup coarsely chopped peeled fresh ginger

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic (about 2 large cloves)

1/2 cup hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup water

8 large chicken thighs, boned (see note)

Place all ingredients except chicken in the work bowl of a food processor. Process for a few minutes, or until you have a smooth puree.

Score the underside of each chicken thigh with a knife, 1/4 inch deep, in 3 or 4 places. Rub the ginger-hoisin puree all over the chicken thighs. Place them in a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours.

When ready to cook, place the thighs in roasting pan, skin side up, and put them under a preheated broiler for 7 to 8 minutes, or until skins are crunchy and brown. Turn the thighs and broil for 3 to 4 minutes more, or until thighs are just cooked through. Transfer the chicken to paper towels, then to serving platter.

Note: To bone chicken thighs, turn them skin side down, then cut along both sides of the bone with a sharp knife. Work your fingers under the bone, lift it up, and cut it free of the tendons holding it at both ends.

Per serving: 253 calories (54 percent fat); 15 grams fat (4 grams saturated fat); 1 gram fiber; 79 milligrams cholesterol; 588 milligrams sodium; 12 grams carbohydrate; 18 milligrams calcium

Upside-Down Gingerbread

Serves 9

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar (divided use)

1/4 cup margarine or butter, melted

1 (8-ounce) can pineapple chunks in unsweetened juice, drained

3/4 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

1/4 cup chopped pecans

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened

1/2 cup boiling water

1/2 cup molasses

1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, combine 1/2 cup brown sugar and the melted margarine; blend well. Spread in bottom of ungreased 8- or 9-inch square pan. Arrange pineapple in 3 diagonal rows over sugar mixture; sprinkle cranberries and pecans around pineapple.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and allspice; mix well. Add remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar, softened margarine, water, molasses and egg; blend well. Pour batter evenly over pineapple, cranberries and pecans.

Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool upright in a pan for 2 minutes. Run knife around edge of pan; invert onto serving plate. Cool at least 30 minutes. If desired, serve warm with whipped cream.

Per serving: 437 calories (37 percent fat); 18 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat); fiber: 2 grams fiber; 24 milligrams cholesterol; 368 milligrams sodium; 68 grams carbohydrate; 101 milligrams calcium

China Moon Pickled Ginger

Makes 3/4 cup ginger and 2 cups juice

1/2 pound peeled fresh ginger

boiling water

1 1/3 cups unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Slice 1/2 pound peeled fresh ginger crosswise against the grain into paper-thin coins. Cover with boiling water. Let stand 2 minutes, then drain in a colander. Put the ginger in a large, very clean glass jar or plastic container. Combine 1 1/3 cups unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a non- aluminum pot. Stir over moderate heat just until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour over the ginger. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before using.

Chocolate-Dipped Gingerbread Biscotti

Makes about 2 1/2 dozen biscotti

3/4 cup crystallized ginger

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 large eggs

1/4 cup light molasses

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2/3 cup (4 ounces) chopped bittersweet chocolate

Divide the crystallized ginger into 2 equal portions. Coarsely chop 1 portion and finely chop the other; set aside.

In a large bowl, blend together the ground ginger, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugars. In another large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until light and creamy. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, followed by the molasses, until the mixture is smooth. Stir in both the coarsely chopped and finely chopped ginger.

Sift the flour and baking powder into the molasses mixture and beat until just blended. The dough will be thick and slightly sticky.

Divide the dough in half, wrap each half in wax paper or plastic wrap, and chill for 2 to 3 hours. (When tightly sealed, the dough will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Grease and flour a baking sheet or line with parchment paper; set aside.

With lightly floured hands, shape each portion of dough into a loaf 1/2 inch thick, 2 inches wide and 12 to 14 inches long. If your hands become sticky, wash, dry and dust with flour again. Place the loaves on the prepared sheet at least 2 inches apart. Bake until the loaves are completely set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Do not turn off the oven.

Place the baking sheet on a wire rack and let the loaves cool on the sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer the loaves to a cutting board and, with a serrated knife, firmly cut each loaf on the diagonal into slices 1/2 inch thick. Place the slices upright on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 10 minutes or longer (if a crisper cookie is desired). Remove the biscotti from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in a microwave. With a spatula, spread the chocolate over half of each cookie. Set the cookies upright on a wire rack until the chocolate has set. Store in an airtight container, separating layers with sheets of wax paper.

Per piece: 135 calories (28 percent fat); 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat); 1 gram fiber; 21 milligrams cholesterol; 33 milligrams sodium; 23 grams carbohydrate; 35 milligrams calcium

Lamb and Prune Tagine

Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion, grated

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 3-inch chunks

2 1/2 cups defatted beef broth

2 cinnamon sticks (each 3 inches long)

peel of 1 lemon, cut in strips

1 1/2 cups pitted prunes

1 cup whole blanched almonds

Place the olive oil, grated onion, garlic, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, salt and pepper in a large heavy pot. Stir them together, then add the meat. Roll the meat in the spice mixture to coat well.

Add the broth, cinnamon sticks and lemon peel. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and gently simmer, partially covered, over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Stir in the prunes and almonds and continue to cook until the lamb is tender, about 30 minutes longer. Remove the cinnamon sticks and lemon peel before serving.

Per serving: 952 calories (66 percent fat); 70 grams fat (24 grams saturated fat); 7 grams fiber; 163 milligrams cholesterol; 367 milligrams sodium; 35 grams carbohydrate; 134 milligrams calcium

Ginger-Pickled Red Cabbage Slaw

Serves 6

1-pound head of red cabbage or half a 2-pound head

1 cup juice from China Moon Pickled Ginger (recipe at left)

1 tablespoon finely minced China Moon Pickled Ginger (recipe at left)

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons coarse kosher salt

toasted black sesame seeds and/or thinly cut green and white scallion rings, for garnish

Discard any limp leaves from the outside of the cabbage. Cut the cabbage into wedge-like fourths and remove the core. Using a mandoline or a Benriner, shred each wedge crosswise into long fine strands.

Combine the pickled ginger juice, minced pickled ginger, sugar and salt in a large, nonaluminum bowl. Add the cabbage and toss well to mix. Set aside for 10 to 20 minutes; toss again.

Transfer the mixture to a square or rectangular, nonaluminum container. Press the cabbage lightly to flatten and expose as much of it as possible to the juice. Seal and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. The cabbage keeps nicely for up to a week. Toss several times during the first day and occasionally thereafter to redistribute the juices. As the cabbage "cooks" in the acids, it will turn hot pink. Serve chilled; garnish with sesame seeds and/or scallion rings.

Per serving: 95 calories (3 percent fat); trace fat; 3 grams fiber; no cholesterol; 441 milligrams sodium; 23 grams carbohydrate; 65 milligrams calcium

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