When chef Aaron Park pickled a batch of fresh, young ginger this fall, its color amazed him. Suspended in a rice vinegar brine, the fine slices blushed a natural pink, a color often achieved artificially in the Japanese sushi condiment, gari. Park, who owns Henry and Marty Restaurant in Brunswick, also shaved the ginger over baked ocean perch and marinated beef short ribs with it for Korean-style kalbi.
"You just don't see it around," Park says. "You see horseradish sometimes, but not ginger. And it was just so beautiful when it came in, so vibrant and alive. You could eat it straight."
Most ginger comes from Asia. Hawaii is the only US state with a real commercial crop. So when I recently relocated from Oregon to Brunswick, I was surprised to find Kennebec Flower Farm selling tropical ginger — and its cousin, fresh turmeric — at my local farmers' market. But at least half a dozen farmers with that good ol' Yankee gumption here in Maine, and farther south, down the East Coast through Florida, are warming up to this novelty crop. In the Northeast, Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, pioneered growing ginger in unutilized greenhouses during summer through a 2006 sustainability grant from the US Department of Agriculture.
The Good Shepherd's Farm in Bremen grew the baby rhizomes (the swollen, underground stem growth) for Park in a new hoop house for the first time this season. Farmers Jessica and David Koubek dug up just over 100 pounds to also supply Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick, Solo Bistro in Bath, a co-op and a sushi bar in Rockland, and Portland's Urban Farm Fermentory, which is test-brewing a batch of young ginger kombucha. "It was a nice starting amount," Jessica Koubek says. "We want to grow more next year."
The Koubeks started pre-sprouting their Hawaiian "Biker Dude" brand organic seed (which looks like grocery store ginger) in a dark, warm basement back in March, just before their third child arrived. In June, they planted the crop in the unheated high tunnel, hilling the soil as with potatoes. By August, the ginger had morphed into a mini-bamboo grove, shooting up tall green stalks with reedy leaves.
Selling for $15 a pound, slow-growing ginger is worth the wait for these farmers. In New England, ginger must be harvested young, by late October. Then it stops growing. Our soil gets too cold for it overwinter into those thicker-skinned, spicier roots.
But baby ginger has many joys. You needn't peel its delicate, pink-tipped skin before mincing or grating. You can use it whole. The flavor is mellow. Ginger grows more fibrous and sharper in taste as it matures.
Freedom Farm, which is Maine's biggest grower, sold most of their ginger — nearly 400 pounds — at MOFGA's Common Ground Fair in Unity. The rest went to Portland farmers' markets, and to restaurants, including Hugo's and Eventide Oyster Co., and Sonny's and Local 188. Farmer Ginger Dermott (that is her given name) pickles and crystallizes it as well. She also freezes its juice in ice-cube trays for single servings to drop into curries throughout the winter. Come spring, Dermott makes ginger beer by fermenting the defrosted, grated mother-roots in a "bug" of sugar and water, akin to a sourdough starter. If you want to learn more, Freedom Farm's Dermott and Dan Price will speak on growing ginger in high tunnels at MOFGA's upcoming Farmer-to-Farmer conference on November 10 at the Point Lookout Resort in Northport.