Culinary rhizomes: Ginger and turmeric

We’re all familiar with ginger root (from the grocery store or dried whole or powdered) and turmeric (commonly found in curry powder–the bright yellow-orange stuff), and galangal in Southeast Asian cooking, but you can add those to the things you can grow in your kitchen garden–even if it is a container garden.

The ginger family of plants (Zingiberaceae) provides us with a number of “spices” that we use frequently:  ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric(Curcuma longa), and galangal (Alpinia officinarum or “lesser galangal), and cardamom seeds (genera Elettaria–green cardamom-and Amomum–black cardamom).

Ginger, turmeric, and galangal are perennial herbaceous plants with specialized horizontal stems (rhizomes) that lie underground, but close to the surface.  While we are most likely to encounter these in the dried form or find the ginger rhizomes in the produce section of the grocery store, you can add the fresh forms of some of these to your culinary repertoire.

All these plants mentioned above have similar requirements for growing: even moisture, well-drained soil, partial to dappled shade, warm temperatures, and high humidity, and protection from cold.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

You can start your ginger by getting the “root stock” (an official technical term here) from the grocery store.   You want rhizomes that are plump, and fresh looking, and that have knobs or nubs growing off the main part of the root.  It’s likely that the ginger root you find in the grocery store will have been treated with something to retard growth/sprouting, so rinse it thoroughly before you plant it.

Bury it about one inch deep in well-drained soil and keep evenly moist.  If you’re planting it in a pot, you should use one that is of 12- to14-inch diameter and about same in depth, but does not need the full depth of most 14 inch pots.

It may take a few weeks before you see shoots appear.  You’ll not want to harvest your ginger heavily the first season, but you can harvest some after about 4 months.  Ginger will not need (or like) full sun–it would prefer part (dappled) shade.  In areas where you get hard freezes, you’ll need to overwinter indoors.  In areas where the winter is mild, it may die back to the ground with the onset of cool weather but should come up again in the spring.  (I’m partial to growing it in large pots).  During the summer it can be put outdoors and moved to shelter to prevent freezing in winter.  It should be fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer about twice during the growing season.

You harvest by very gently uncovering part of the rhizome, or where it’s seen above the surface towards the edge of the pot–leaving the center portion undisturbed.

The ginger you harvest from your plant will be much less fibrous and less “hot” when compared to the large rhizomes that you purchase in the grocery store.  The leaves/stalks can also be used to brew tea (steep leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes) and you can add to stir-fries or other dishes if you slice the stalks/leaves thinly–it has a mild ginger flavor and maybe a hint of lemon or citrus.

Turmeric ( Curcuma domestica syn Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is touted as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant–I’m not touching on those properties here, but rather the culinary uses.  It has been called “poor man’s saffron” and that’s one of my favorite things: add fresh turmeric to rice.  It’s very earthy and warm.  It’s not saffron, but it’s good.

To grow your own, you’ll need the fresh rhizomes–found in Asian, Indian or Latina groceries–probably located close to the ginger, (and maybe the galangal).  You’ll treat it almost as you would ginger:  plant about one to two inches deep in a 12- to 14-inch pot (about 12 inches in depth as well), keep evenly moist but well-drained, and give it part shade to dappled shade.  This is also a tropical perennial so it will need winter protection.  In cool weather, the leaves will die back, but if not frozen the rhizomes should sprout again in the spring.  (I tried keeping some, with the ginger, in the house to overwinter, but neither turmeric nor ginger survived as a plant; the rhizomes did put up shoots again in the spring.)

You can harvest as you would ginger–by carefully cutting off small pieces toward the edges of the pot.  You need to handle with care as it will stain hands and probably counters–it’s used as a dye, too.   Left undisturbed (except for harvesting from the edges) you may see blooms in the second year.

Turmeric is currently appearing in chocolate bars, and being touted as a “superfood”. I just like the earthy flavor, in many things where I would use saffron (but am too cheap to do that).

I hope to add galangal if I can find the fresh rhizome–there is an Asian food store that I keep watching. I suspect I’ll find it there sooner or later.

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Perennial alliums

The “lilies of the kitchen”–yes, I borrowed the title from a book by Barbara Batcheller (See Bibliography–Vegetable Cookbooks)” are onions, leeks, garlic, shallots, and scallions!  They are often hidden away in the sofrito/soffrito or the mirepoix, but they can make fantastic dishes on their own.  I can’t imagine a kitchen without these “lilies”.  In my kitchen, being without onions and garlic is just about as big a catastrophe as being out of chocolate or coffee!

Can you really cook without all the Allium family? Caramelized onions, roasted garlic, scallions or green onions to add to salads and chives to top the baked potato.  Then there are leeks…another under-used, and perhaps, under-appreciated vegetable as an ingredient as a vegetable on their own.

While most of this family are now readily available in the supermarket, there are some that it’s worthwhile growing in your own garden.  Others, unless you have a huge garden and want to be self-sufficient, it’s much easier to buy.  The regular “yellow” or storage onions that we cook with–they’re inexpensive.  Most of us don’t have space or the humidity/temperatures required to store the quantity that we use in a season so buying those makes good sense.

Others like leeks, shallots, and garlic I use in such quantities that I don’t have space or time to tend. Since they are also readily available from the supermarket or the farmer’s market I’ll opt to buy as well. Some that we use “green”–like scallions might be worth growing but still demand space and time.

When we speak of “fresh” onions, we often use the terms green onion, scallion, and spring onion interchangeably but there really are some differences. The green onion and scallion differences are mostly marketing semantics. Spring onions are just regular onions (that would eventually form a bulb) harvested while immature–as when you have to thin the onion you planted too close together. Scallions, on the other hand, are species of allium that do not form a fully developed bulb. If you’re a huge fan of alliums of all sorts there are some perennial perennials that can be good substitutes for those fresh ones that we normally buy, and they can be grown in small spaces–or even large containers.

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A. fistulosum

Allium fistulosumor bunching onion is a possible stand-in for those green onions from the grocery store if you want to grow your own. While the “Welsh” is a misnomer since these came from China originally, the taste is still “green onion”, sometimes grown as an ornamental. You can find bunching onions from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

 

 

 

The Egyptian (this may also be a misnomer) –my favorite–is just plain fun with its unusual appearance that will definitely be a topic of conversation.

allium_fistulosum_bulbifera0

A. cepa x proliferu

Other common names include tree onion, top onion, walking onion, Canada onion, and Catawissa onion which may all refer to various cultivars. The Egyptian Walking Onion,  Egyption Onions , Biodiverseed and Mother Earth News websites provide some glimpses into the rather mysterious history of these (and other) onions.

Genetically it has been shown to be a cross between the common allium (Allium cepa) and the “Welsh” onion (above). Botanically speaking, it is Allium cepa x proliferum. These form bulbs, but also have top-sets which can be shared with friends. These plants multiply from the bulb in the ground as well as by producing top-sets, and sometimes topsets on topsets, rather than seeds. These onions are most often found from growers or seed catalogs specializing in heirloom vegetables such as Territorial Seeds, although a Google search shows them available from eBay and Amazon.

Potato onions (multiplier onions, shallots)  or Allium cepa var. aggregatum are also perennial alliums. These do not produce topsets, but rather “multiply” from bulbs left in the ground over the winter.

Multiplier (Allium porrum), perennial, multiplying or “Musselburgh” leeks (Allium ampeloprasum), though smaller than annuals,  can provide the taste of leeks without the amount of effort involved with annual leeks. These are also called garden leeks.

More information on sites like Edible Gardening, Hope Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, FoodForestFarm.com , inhabitat.com, and icultivate.net.  Grow some “lilies of the kitchen” and don’t ignore others like chives. Then there’s garlic: for a method of growing without yearly planting check out The One Straw Revolution.

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Spring at the hive

Glechoma hederacea

Glechoma hederacea

I’ve just been out to check on the girls. Finally there are more flowers blooming as we have a few warm days. Becoming a beekeeper has changed my perspective on what I look for as a harbinger of spring. I’ve always loved dandelions and now I know bees love dandelions too. Other early spring things that bees love include some very unobtrusive plants (for some these will be weeds) such as ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Unfortunately many plants (ornamental) preferred by us aren’t beneficial to bees–they don’t produce enough pollen or nectar. One of the “harbingers” here seems to be the Bradford Pear–they are everywhere–and not for the bees. Fortunately, there are some plants/flowers that are good for both the bees and us though they may not be what we consider most glamorous or desirable–for many ornamental flowers we’ve bred out pollen and nectar production which bees need.

With my new perspective on blossoms, I’m noticing things that are likely to be considered weeds by many–especially those who want a lawn that looks like AstroTurf! Not my cup of tea at all, and not for the bees.

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Acer spp

Acer spp

Even though things are starting to bloom, we still have cool days or periods of rain (when the bees cannot forage). This is a time of population explosion in the hive as the bees get ready for nectar flow–maximize the workforce. Rearing brood and drawing comb is energy intensive and though there is honey still in the hive, I’ve added some “feed”–aka granulated sugar–to help them over periods when foraging is impossible. The maple trees are breaking into bloom and the bees bring pollen from them back to the hive, but they are not a major nectar source. Bees are not like the postal service–some things do prevent going out to forage, hence the sugar that I put into the hive this morning. If the bees are getting plenty of nectar and pollen, they will ignore that stack of sugar and go out and bring back the good stuff.

 

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Baked Feta Cheese with whatever you are growing in your veggie patch

I love feta cheese–I’d never thought to do something so simple and easy for a summer lunch or supper.

Promenade Plantings

The allotment sorely needs my attention right now, it will be planting time soon and a) I haven’t done any preparation and b) and even more pressing is that until today I haven’t sown any seeds.

I have a To Do List in my head – clearing the winter debris, tidying jobs abound, a new path to be cleared between the greenhouse and shed and talking of the greenhouse it’s on my to do list too!  But I’m not going to dwell on the To Do List as there’s a tendency for it to all start feeling a bit overwhelming. I remind myself this is a hobby, a pleasure and an escape from TO DO lists. Instead I accept that a busy life means it’s a case of do what and when I can and while I’m there pick a few leaves of winter greens like Chard and Kale, dig…

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