Winter Wow, Spicing up the season with Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense
Wild Ginger, or, Asarum Canadense, is a wild growing forest herb native to eastern north America from Quebec and Nova Scotia, down to Georgia and Tennessee. As a culinary spice, Wild Ginger has a bold distinct character, both in its fragrance and flavour. Though it shares a spicy bite with tropical Ginger, the similarities end there. In our area, Wild Ginger is not yet on the endangered list, let’s do what we can keep it that way. Try to buy from reliable sources that practice ethical and sustainable harvesting, (especially when purchasing the essential oil which necessitates the harvest of large quantities), and if you’re going to harvest it yourself, please be considerate of the plants and the balance of nature. For insights on how to take care of your local wild growing Wild Ginger patches, you can read the post Wild Ginger flavourful fragrant Northern Treasure.
Unfortunately, most of us have little, or no experience with Wild Ginger in the kitchen.We are not familiar with its unique flavor and fragrance or how it can complement even the simplest of daily meals. In particular, how it transforms our traditional fall and winter dishes. Comparing it to Tropical Ginger is like comparing mangos to a really boring fruit, they both may be fruit, grow on trees, sweet, but very, very different from each other. They each have different qualities we can utilize in the kitchen. Wild Ginger is very different from tropical ginger, not even belonging to the same family. From the perspective of flavour and fragrance, Wild Ginger offers us much more than regular Ginger.
WILD GINGER or CANADA
SNAKE SALAMANDER ROOT
Crooked, pencil diameter greenish-grey to black rhizomes, twisting, spreading, clinging to the surface of the forest floor like undulating salamanders frozen in a defensive “camo'” move. Called Canada Snakeroot in some traditions, the swollen pointed arrow shaped growing tips support this name, looking almost reptilian, but, the shorter offshoots, staggered and alternating to each side, make them look more like a startled nest of scurrying salamanders, than snakes with shorter snakes exiting their flanks. That, my friends, was the easy part of describing Wild Ginger to you. I simply can’t think of any spice, plant, aroma or flavour, natural or other, that I have experienced that could possibly act as a reference for a comparative description. There is nothing I could say that would give you the slightest inkling of what you will experience when you taste or smell Wild Ginger, or the abundant inspired uses you will find for it in the kitchen. It is simply not “like” anything else. Even naming this plant Wild Ginger is a stretch, but understandable.
So, as mentioned, Wild Ginger, tastes nothing like tropical Ginger. It does however have, among its rich complexities of fragrance and flavour, a spicy bite, that can be compared to the bite of tropical Ginger. But, that is about all they share. Can it be used as a replacement for “regular ginger in cooking and baking?, Yes, but, it is NOT a true replacement for it. A replacement would perform as the original, and a good replacement, would barely be noticed. This is NOT the case with Wild Ginger folks. You can try to use it as a replacement for regular Ginger, but instead of not noticing the substitute, you will get-a WOW!! Yes ma’am, a WOW!! Eyes open as far as they can, eyebrow cocked, (one in question, one in awe), a pause, while they look you in the eye, silently asking. ? ? ? , And looking at the blankness in their other eye, through the iris dilated with awe, you see the little gears in their brains spinning around, clinking, grinding. In the foreground, little clerks run around amidst flying papers and reference notes of things they tasted, smelled, heard of in the past, but, they are fast coming up with nothing. Frantically trying to find anything to pass on to the mouth which is still hanging open silently. True story. So it is not a replacement for Ginger, as much as it is a secret weapon in a cook’s or baker’s repertoire that can be substituted for regular ginger and wow people. People who may have expected the flavour of “normal” ginger in your dish. I hope you gleaned some knowledge of what it is through what it isn’t. Because as implied in the preceding paragraph, describing Wild Ginger is a challenge. Therapeutically, Wild Ginger shares many of the same qualities that tropical ginger has, it is stimulating and warming, improving the appetite and digestion, reduces nausea, acts as an anti-inflammatory. Topically it is a rubificant that stimulates surface blood-flow. It makes a wicked essential oil for perfume or aromatherapy. Wild Ginger abounds with oleoresins, with an accent on the resins, fragrant molecules a little heavier than essential oils, so they cannot be distilled off with the essential oils, but must be collected via solvent extraction such as alcohol. I believe the resins in Wild Ginger will eventually reveal great therapeutic value, just as the resins in Turmeric, Frankincense, Myrrh, the Spruces, and Fir family.
It’s fragrance is perky and mesmerizes you with its unexpected depth and complexity. Though not “perfumey”, it has a lovely bold and distinguished fragrance. With a hint of the forest floor, and spicy Maple leaves layered in the woods, caramelized sugar and Maple Syrup. This sweet spiciness is couched in a warm, woody masculine floral note, reminiscent of Neroli or Mock Orange blossoms with Black Pepper keeping it dry and crisp. Perhaps due to its abundance of resins, Wild Ginger has a persistent, soft, woody, amber-like balsam note holding it all together. A spicy, warm creaminess like Peru Balsam, Vanilla and Cloves. Wild Ginger, in its short description, is a spicy, sweet, woody, dry floral fragrance with a vanilla amber note, and an uplifting, flavourful and pleasant bite. So much more than tropical Ginger. I don’t know if any of the above attempts at describing wild ginger helped, or left you exactly where you were, but I did come up with the brilliant idea, (pat on the back), of making small 10 gram samplers that could be shipped inexpensively by regular letter mail. ($2.00?). Enough dry wild ginger pieces to make one or three pots of rice, or trays of squash, or pans of coffeecake, etc. Enough to experience it first hand in the kitchen and at the table. I hope by now you can understand my frustration with words falling short of conveying in even the smallest measure how wonderful and useful this herb is. How it can transform the food we cook, and enrich our lives.I honestly see no way for second hand words to impart the understanding first hand experience can give us. But I tried anyway.
Using Wild Ginger in the kitchen
I am not an expert cook. I am though, a creative cook, and can whip up a mean batch of humus, a nourishing winter stew, or a succulent roast without much thought. I do not have a huge collection of recipes. OK, I haven’t collected any culinary recipes. Ok, I don’t actually have any culinary recipes. I try to practice trusting life to provide what I need when I need it, and there are soooooooooo many recipes online, it really does not take much faith, trust or effort to find a good recipe when I need one. I cast my Google net when I do, and improvise. I cook like I shop. I pick 3 of the most appealing recipes on Google. Then, after comparing, and finding the median in price, simplicity, method and daring, I change it. Or use parts of each. Most of the time I outdo myself with this approach and in general, it works well, keeps me on my toes and engaged. I found it is very easy to improvise with wild Ginger and create unique dishes. It lends itself especially well to fall dishes and winter dishes with its warming fragrant spiciness. This for me, is another indication that fall is the best time to harvest this plant for essential oils and culinary applications. Wild Ginger is a very exciting spice to explore and work with, and the simplest way to do so is to substitute regular ginger in a recipe with wild Ginger. It does have one or two quirks that are important to note before experimenting with it..
- It is fairly easy to grind it up coarsely in a mortar and pestle, then transfer it to a coffee grinder and turn most of it into a powder. This powder can be stored in spice jars, added anywhere you would like something a little different.
- Wild Ginger keeps well if stored well. Thoroughly dried in a sealed container. Storing any herb in a dark jar or cool dark spot, is always a good idea. Kept properly it will keep whole for over a decade! Powdered for 3-5 years. I attribute its extended shelf life to the resins it contains, I think they are naturally bound with the essential oils which keeps the fragrance from flying off.
- Wild Ginger has the added benefit of adding a unique texture. For instance when ground coarsely these chunks tenderize nicely during the time that a pot of rice cooks, let’s say 20 minutes, and will turn into tender chewy,and very flavorful morsels in your rice dish. This adds a lovely and surprising texture along with its unique flavour. Often when grinding this tough rhizome in the coffee grinder, you will find only half your quantity has powdered, and when passed through a simple sieve, you will be left with small nuggets. They are perfect as they are for adding flavoured texture..
- Another difference between the wild Ginger and regular Ginger, is that wild Ginger is a little less spicy, and though it has much more character than regular ginger, it is modest and does not shout, bite or cut. It is rich but less outspoken than some spices. If the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of regular dry Ginger one should usually add one and a half teaspoons of dried wild Ginger.
Everyday meals, fall dishes, warming winter treats, and holiday favourites. Baked goods, candies, cakes, cookies, casseroles and warm winter beverages.The possibilities with Wild Ginger are endless. Here are some thoughts and ideas for where Wild Ginger could be wonderfully suited.
- Pumpkin pies A perfect match for your filling, adjust the other spices accordingly, more WG-less Nutmeg or other spices. Use your intuition, your nose, you’ll do fine.
- Sweet potatoes and squash dishes, add powdered WG to the butter, garlic or whatever you baste it with.
- Gingerbread, Ginger-snaps, spice loaf, coffeecake. A little more WG is required than regular Ginger, about 1 1/2- 2 times WG as called for regular ginger. Adjust the original spices accordingly.
- Rice dishes, as I mentioned Wild Ginger chunks, (about 1/8″ long), make lovely pieces of chewy flavoured tenderness, it goes really well with wild mushrooms, chicken stock, beef stock and vegetable stock.
- Venison, Bison, Wild game and fowl are flattered by Wild Ginger. It also helps lighten heaviness and eases digestion of heavy or wild meats. The flavours blend beautifully!!
- Added to a stuffing and a baste for regular store-bought turkey, chicken, pork, WG helps cut any fat or heaviness associated with meat dishes, while adding a beautiful flavour and spiciness that blends seamlessly with your dish. It really shines!
- Eggnog Wild Ginger is a lovely touch and lends rich spicy notes to eggnog. It lifts it up!
- Ice cream? If you make your own, use WG as your main or secondary flavour.
- Wild Ginger is excellent as a tea infused in hot water, or added to your favorite herb tea or chai. 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground fine per cup of boiling water works well alone or in most herbal and fruit type teas. It is warming to the body helps ease a sore throat, dispel nausea and stimulate digestion.
- Pancakes and hot breakfast cereals can benefit from a pinch of powdered WG in the mix, especially when using fruit in your batter, like blueberries.
- Mulled Cider is transformed and sublimated with the addition of wild ginger. It will be an eye opener at gatherings! The wow! factor.
- The same goes for mulled wine.
- Needless to say a pancake syrup made from wild Ginger is exceptionally yummy and memorable. You can find directions for making a Wild Ginger syrup along with the recipes for making candied Wild Ginger in these two posts. Candied Wild Ginger Recipe, and Candied Wild Ginger, a recipe from fresh.
- Elderberry wine, Dandelion wine and many other wild brews benefit greatly from a measure of Wild Ginger. I think you get the point by now, so I won’t ramble on any further.
These are a starting point really. Some I have myself made over the years, some I hope to make in the future. Wild Ginger takes them all up a notch. I would love to hear of any ones experiences growing, harvesting, distilling or cooking with Asarum Canadense. Any comments, insights, inspirations, recipes, thoughts and of course questions, would be more than welcome. Anytime. I wish you all an illuminated Winter Solstice, and a wonderful, warm, inspiring Winter. Dan
If you live in the Hamilton area, you can purchase these samplers at Humblepie, on James Street North. Susan also carries a selection of Frankincense and Myrrh samplers and some of my Astrodynamic preparations. Here’s a link to her site.Humblepielifestyle.com