By Marek Kulig.
Walk a local South Coast or South Shore farm, or any New England farm for that matter, and you’ll pass the regulars: cabbage, carrots, kale, cranberries, winter squash, various herbs. They’ve had their places reserved in the dirt in these parts for a long time. But there’s a new plant come around, a native of China and India that’s a bit high maintenance, though well worth the attention. That tropical plant is baby ginger.
A root, baby ginger won’t be found alongside any of the region’s regulars. In fact, it won’t be found anywhere in the open air—it needs an environment where the temperature and moisture are controlled. Baby ginger needs a greenhouse, wants the temperature around an ideal 72 degrees and the soil evenly moist, and appreciates a breeze. Quite the list of demands from one of the world’s oldest spices. And then there’s the cost.
“We love growing it, but it is a challenging crop to grow in this region,” says Marie Kaziunas, a farmer at Freedom Food Farm in Raynham, Massachusetts, where ginger has been offered for three years. “The ginger rhizomes that we plant are very expensive, and its availability is also very limited—our source sells out very quickly every year.” Coming all the way from Hawaii, directly from a distributor called “The Biker Dude,” the lure for that rhizome seems justified.
But getting the rhizomes, naturally, is only the beginning. Interchangeably referred to as spring ginger, young ginger, immature ginger, or ginger rhizome, baby ginger is grown as an annual. It starts in the spring from a mother ginger root and is harvested in early fall. To grow it as a perennial would requires a heated greenhouse.
The greenhouse at Freedom is unheated, yet baby ginger’s growing requisites are met, for from spring through fall it’s kept at its preferred moisture with drip irrigation and warm with a row cover. The farmers check it frequently—it’d be a shame to let such a front-heavy investment spoil. A check-in with the ginger may include a finger in the dirt to check conditions. A more extensive, forward-thinking evaluation will involve a pen and paper. Farmers will note the crop’s progress and record data, which they analyze, compare to the previous years’ figures, and apply to future harvests.
What’s more, the free-range chickens on the farm visit the greenhouse too. “Chickens will get at the pests,” says Marie. So far, the beaks have kept the bugs at bay, and they’re a clean alternative to insecticide and other adulterating agents. Biodiversity, too, is a deterrent and, fortunately, pests have yet to upset plants in the greenhouse.
Freedom Food Farm harvests only organic food. Standing in the greenhouse next to the aromatic, lush, nearly hip-high verdant stalks is visual evidence, and pulling up low on the stalk reveals a young rhizome that’s a beautiful white and pink, soft and supple. What’s missing is the familiar khaki-colored skin everyone is used to seeing at the market. But for it to be considered baby ginger, the root cannot stay in the ground long enough to mature into its stringy fibered older kin (which is, by the way, easiest to peel with a spoon).
Marie says, “You can’t buy the type of ginger we grow—fresh, uncured baby ginger—in the grocery store in Massachusetts, let alone freshly harvested and organic ginger.” Baby ginger is $20 per pound and Freedom Food Farm raises Khing Yai and Bubba Baba Blue Ginger. All aglow in its youth compared to its mature counterpart, baby ginger is a mover on the shelf. The attractive appearance really makes people want to try it. “It really is a different product,” Marie enthuses.
The difference extends to taste as well. Humorously deemed the veal of ginger, baby ginger is mild and tender unlike its older, harder, and rougher brother. That rugged look brings the heat. As a general rule of thumb, the thicker the skin, the stronger the singe. So if a recipe calls for ginger understand that mature ginger may challenge other flavors for prominence, whereas baby ginger won’t duel with them.
According to Marie, baby ginger can be used in various ways. “We use it in everything from stir-fries to seasonal soups, and dressings to beverages.” And because it keeps very well in the freezer, grating it into batter for gingerbread, slicing it for a salad, or adding its juice to tea baby ginger still retains its fresh taste. “Fermenting it in our raw farm kimchi is another way we preserve it. I’m sure you could also dry it, pickle it, or make it into ginger syrup, ginger beer, et cetera.”
Preserve ginger and preserve your health: consuming ginger has some effective health and remedial qualities. Take it to boost your immune system or at the first signs of a sickness. It’s listed in ingredients used in making the nutritional and energizing fire cider, and in cold weather, adding it to tisane is advisable. Stalks can be used as lemongrass in teas and soups. (Wield the power of the whole plant!)
Though less healthy, ginger beer and its alcohol-free peer ginger ale, are options too. After dinner, instead of reaching for a digestivo like Italian amaro, or, if you prefer something French, a cognac, let the ginger work its digestive prowess.
Whether substituting a little- something-with-ginger for a post-meal cocktail, or adding it to spur an ordinary meal to the next level, you’re consuming a tonic. No wonder ginger is grown all over the world today. Fortunately for us coastal people, New England has been on the ginger map for about 10 years, ever since a farm in Western Massachusetts received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to fund its then innovative venture in the northeast. Still, not many people know it’s available here.
“We always get excitement and surprise when we bring baby ginger to farmers’ markets or harvest it for our CSA members and customers at our farm store.” Marie genuinely raves about all roots the farm grows. Turmeric (grown parallel to the ginger and in the same family), celeriac, turnips, daikon radish—these are all wonderful, but the notion suggests people look forward most to ginger season.
At Freedom Food Farm, baby ginger is harvested and sold fresh between September and October, depending on fall’s temperature. It’s also available frozen over the winter in the farm store.
Maybe it’s the persistent novelty of baby ginger’s availability in New England that’s got people giddy. Hopefully, its versatility in the kitchen will keep its place at the table, and at the farm, where with more recognition, it may slowly become one of the regulars.
Freedom Food Farm
471 Leonard Street
Raynham, MA 02767
Marek Kulig is a newly initiated baby ginger enthusiast. Though he won’t be growing his own any time soon, he will be campaigning for it at every farm store and farm stand he comes across.
Parsnip-Ginger Layer Cake with Browned Buttercream Frosting
This takes spice cake to a whole new level. It’s amped up with parsnips and fresh ginger and balanced with the most perfect sweet-and-nutty, browned butter frosting.
- unsalted butter, at room temperature, for greasing the pans
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the pans
- 1 cup grapeseed or canola oil
- 3 cups peeled and shredded parsnips (about 1¼ pounds)
- 1½-inch knob (1 to 1¼ ounces) fresh ginger, peeled and grated on a Microplane
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- 1½ cups sugar
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 4 large eggs
- ¾ cup low-fat or whole milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- ½ cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped
- Brown Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch cake pans. Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper.
Heat ¼ cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add the parsnips and fresh ginger and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the parsnips are fragrant and tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the parsnip mixture cool.
Meanwhile, whisk together the ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in a large bowl. Add the 2 cups of flour, the sugar, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until incorporated.
In a smaller, separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ¾ cup of oil, the eggs, milk, and vanilla.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Stir in the parsnip mixture and toasted pecans until just combined.
Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake until the tops begin to turn golden, or an inserted toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.
Transfer the cakes to wire cooling racks and let cool in the pans for 10 minutes. To remove the cakes, run a knife around the inside edge of each cake pan. Invert the pans onto the cooling racks, leaving the pans in place until the cakes release. Remove the pans and parchment, and allow the cakes to cool completely.
Place one of the cakes top side up on a cake plate. Scoop about one third of the frosting onto the center of the cake, and use an off set spatula (or butter knife) to spread out the frosting evenly. Place the second cake, top side down, onto the frosted cake top. Scoop the remaining frosting onto the center of the second layer (you may use less frosting if you prefer—you want just enough to cover the top surface of the cake) and spread it in an even layer all the way to the edge (leave the sides bare).
Note: To make a 4-layer cake, bake the cake in 2 pans and turn them out of the pans as directed. Once the cakes have cooled completely, cut each in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Double the frosting. Layer and lightly frost each round.
Serves 8 to 10
Brown Buttercream Frosting
Serve this sweet and nutty treat at birthdays as a layered cake with frosting on top and in the middle, or bake it into cupcakes, or as a more casual sheet cake.
- 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
- 4 to 4½ cups confectioners’ sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3 to 6 tablespoons milk or warm water, plus extra if needed
Heat the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat until it melts and becomes golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, sift 4 cups of the confectioners’ sugar into a medium-size bowl. Add the browned butter and vanilla and beat together with an electric hand mixer (or a stand mixer) on medium-low speed until just incorporated. Add 3 tablespoons milk or more to reach your desired consistency and beat on medium-low speed until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. If you add too much liquid and the frosting is too thin, just add more confectioners’ sugar, a little at a time, to reach your desired consistency. Let the frosting cool before spreading on the cake.
Frosting will keep, in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 week. Bring it to room temperature before using and add more milk or warm water to thin it if needed.
Makes about 2½ cups
Excerpted from The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2016. Photographs by Matthew Benson.