Produce at Its Peak: Ginger and Friends

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Fresh Turmeric from Kolo Kai in the Produce Department (January 27th).

Growing up, the only ginger I knew came in powdered form and was most often added in modest amounts to batters for cookies and cakes. Now, decades later, ginger – fresh ginger – has become a staple ingredient in my kitchen.

Indigenous to southern China, ginger thrives in India, Jamaica, Hawaii, and Peru, so, for us, the closest we get to “local” ginger is a few deliveries each summer of baby ginger grown in hoop houses at Seven Songs Farm in southern Minnesota.

But we do have a direct relationship with a farm in a region where ginger grows gloriously and naturally. A few years back we started purchasing from Kolo Kai, an organic farm on the north side of Hawaii’s Kauai Island. Kolo Kai is run by Colette and Ben Ferris who have been farming organically since 1980 and specializing in ginger and turmeric since the late 1990s.

"When I asked Collette from Kolo Kai about
galangal, she described it as a 'monster.'"

At Kolo Kai, ginger is planted March through May. In August, the first round of white ginger is harvested and in its youth it is tender with little to no fiber. In October, the white ginger begins to become more fibrous and by November the mature skin is set. Yellow ginger harvest begins late December. We just finished our run of white ginger and we’ll see our first delivery of yellow ginger any day. Kolo Kai also grows the aromatic galangal or Thai ginger and turmeric both of which we have had available and will continue to order as it is available.

Each root (technically a rhizome or modified stem) is hand harvested at Kolo Kai. Afterwards, it is washed by hand with a sprayer, rinsed, sorted, rinsed once more and then laid out to dry on wire racks to prevent mold. Once dry, the stumps are trimmed, inspected, packed, and shipped. A crop that was harvested on a Monday arrives at the co-op on the Thursday of the same week.

Fresh ginger should be smooth and shiny. Mature ginger has a tough papery skin that should be removed prior to eating. This can be easily done without sacrificing too much of the flesh by scraping the skin with the edge of a spoon.

Yellow ginger has a refreshingly bright aroma with a dynamic flavor profile that ranges from floral and citrus to aromatic woods and pepper. This variety is less delicate than white ginger and is more potent. When juiced, yellow ginger results in a golden yellow, punchy elixir full of bite. Slower to mature than white ginger, we typically see our first shipment of yellow ginger from Kolo Kai in January. When yellow ginger is not available from Kolo Kai, we try to keep a steady supply on our shelves from Peru or other Hawaiian producers.

White ginger may also be referred to as Chinese or blue ring ginger. Quicker to mature than yellow ginger, white ginger is harvested earlier and is the first shipment we receive from Kolo Kai. When young, the skin is translucent with pink scales and the flesh is tender with very little fiber. As it matures, it develops a shiny tan skin and may develop a characteristic blue-gray cast to the flesh. White ginger is sweeter, mellower, and juicier than yellow ginger.

Galangal or Thai ginger is more fibrous than yellow or white ginger with notes of eucalyptus, pine, and camphor but little to none of the lemony flavor found on other gingers. Commonly used in Southeast Asian, particularly Thai cuisine, galangal is often paired with lemongrass and other aromatics to flavor sauces and soups.

Harvesting galangal is not for the faint of heart. When I asked Collette from Kolo Kai about galangal she described it as a “monster.” The twisted, gnarly roots are treacherous to get out of the ground. Each root is dug out by hand which is more time-consuming but results in a cleaner project. For the most unwieldy to harvest, a pick ax is used wrestle segments of galangal out of ground. Not surprisingly, not many ginger farmers also grow galangal. For this reason, while yellow ginger has become a stable feature in the produce department we typically only see galangal for a few months out of the year.

Baby ginger is sometimes called spring ginger and may arrive with the remains of the stem, pink tips, and tender, pale thin skin that does not require peeling. Milder in flavor than even yellow ginger, baby ginger is often used raw in salads or pickled in Asian cuisine. The past few summers we have had a few deliveries of baby ginger from Seven Songs farm. Grown from Hawaiian seed ginger, the roots are cultivated under hoop houses throughout the summer.

Turmeric is a relative of ginger in the Zingiberaceae family. With its papery skin, mature turmeric may be mistaken for ginger. However, once the skin is peeled back a vibrant orange flesh is exposed that is entirely unlike ginger. Turmeric has been used as a sort of natural food coloring (think mustard, yellow cheddar and some butter) and natural dye for skin and fiber. The pigment is derived from curcumin – a phenolic compound that is also a powerful antioxidant and preservative. Widely used in folk medicine, turmeric has been gaining mainstream popularity for its potential range of benefits including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Also unlike ginger, turmeric has a woodsy, dry earth aroma and an equally earthy, slightly bitter flavor. Add fresh to season roast or stir-fried fish and meat, curries, and soups. Pairing turmeric with carrot results in a nice balance. Try adding turmeric to a carrot soup or make a truly orange juice with carrot, turmeric, and orange - both delicious and nutritious.