Bumper crops of ginger and turmeric are redefining Southern staples, thanks to a couple of accidental farmers. Photography by Jason B. James.
The evergreen ginger leaves are wide, waxy and lush, like exotic “elephant’s ear” breaking through the dark, sandy loam. Row upon row of dew-drenched plants lend the storied grounds of Lebanon Plantation an air of paradise, as if Ross Harding and I are walking among the rainforests of Jamaica or the fertile terraces of southern China instead of beneath moss-covered oaks not far from the salty Savannah marsh.
Here, Harding and business partner Howard Morrison have launched Verdant Kitchen, a bold experiment to harvest bountiful crops of organically grown, USDA-approved ginger and turmeric in our humid climate. It’s not without precedent, I learn.
We make our way to Verdant Kitchen’s processing plant—a renovated, whitewashed four-room house on the plantation. There, Harding opens Von Reck’s Voyage, a 1736 account of a German colonist’s encounters with flora, fauna and native life in Oglethorpe’s colonial Savannah. Within its pages are delicate, two-centuries-old drawings of ginger and turmeric, transplants from the East India Trading Company, that mirror the living plants just outside Harding’s front door.
“The crop that was originally here in Savannah, we don’t know what happened to it,” he says, his voice accented by his Australian origins. “This book is the only reference that we can find—that it was here, that someone grew it at some stage. Before that, it was only ever grown in subtropical India or subtropical China.”
What began in 2011 as a pet project between Harding and Morrison, who met through their mutual interest in sustainable, alternative energy sources, has turned into a full-time business.
“The first year, the question for us was, ‘Could we make it grow here?’” Harding recalls. “So, we experimented the first year. The second year, we tried to expand it, asking ourselves if we could make a product. This year, it’s ‘Let’s go!’”
Growing more than seven types of ginger and turmeric on 10 plots of land, Harding and Morrison have moved beyond producing a couple of pounds of ginger, turmeric, squash and snap peas to sell at Brighter Day Natural Foods Market—the pair’s first customer. Today, they produce thousands of pounds a year to craft specialty gourmet products, such as ginger snaps and turmeric teas, which are sold in shops throughout Georgia and as far away as the Hamptons.
“We grow for flavor, not for volume,” says Harding. “Most of the ginger that you find in the supermarket looks like potatoes. They’re huge because you’re selling by the pound. We have no interest in that. We want that intense flavor. We want to know the yellow ginger versus the white, the Peruvian ginger versus the Hawaiian blue, and which ones can grow here.”
They auditioned different seeds from various areas around the globe for experimentation. It took multiple trials to find the right ginger for the Savannah climate, yet even now Harding says they’re still pushing the envelope to find which one yields the best flavor so that Verdant Kitchen products will become kitchen staples.
“What we’ve tried to do is formulate the ginger and turmeric into things that are easy to use,” Harding explains. “You might make a cocktail once if it calls for powdered ginger, but if I give you a bottle of ginger syrup, you’re having a bourbon and ginger, and sitting outside, every night.”
Why the sudden interest in this 4,000-year-old root?
“It’s delicious, it’s helpful and it tastes good,” says Harding. “We want a ‘Wow!’ factor product; we want a spark when people say it’s delicious.”
But ginger and turmeric, sister roots within the zingiber family, present more than just a tasty aside for Asian-inspired recipes and baked holiday goods. There’s a growing market for true foods that deliver old world flavors while also healing.
“Ginger and turmeric are really in demand for their medicinal qualities,” says Janie Broadhead, co-owner of Brighter Day. “They’re great for digestion and for pain management, and what Ross is doing at Verdant is growing it in a really unique way that people will use every day.”
In a Pinch
For Mir Ali, the chef/owner of Lili’s Restaurant, a new Wilmington Island eatery specializing in a fusion of French, Pakistani and Southern cuisine, these pungent spices recall home.
“Ginger and turmeric aren’t exotic; they’re just exotic for Savannah,” he says. “People are afraid to use them because they don’t know about them or how to incorporate them into their daily diet. But I’m from Pakistan, so I grew up eating the stuff and our menu reflects that.”
Ali’s favorite eats revolve around traditional Asian dishes such as curries, medicinal cocktails and hand-dried beef jerky, which is an heirloom recipe of his mother’s that she still makes and sends to him in bulk. He cautions newbies, however, that training taste buds for these potent flavors is all in the pinch, not the pound.
“If you bite into a piece of ginger, it’s pretty strong,” Ali says. “Introduce it slowly to your cuisine and get used to it first. It’s the same as saying you can always add more salt to your dish; you can always add more turmeric and ginger. ”
Outside of the traditional Asian-inspired dishes, Will Oglesby, chef at B. Matthew’s Eatery, throws ginger inspiration into his everyday cooking for the spark.
“I like ginger with just about anything,” Oglesby enthuses. “I’ll put a little fresh ginger or ginger ale in with the pork braise to add a little extra to it … a little sweetness.”
Sweet or savory, ginger pairs well with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne and garlic. It’s just a matter of getting the proportions right in the recipe—and taking creative chances.
“If you like the flavor of garlic in anything, you can put ginger with that as well,” says Ali. “Flash fry it, use it as a garnish, top your sandwiches with it. Why not?”
Coconut Curried Mussels (pictured above)
Mir Ali notes that this recipe adapts well to other proteins—tofu, chicken or shrimp—and vegetables. But the briny mollusk, when in season, is especially brightened by the ginger.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or coconut oil
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 cup dry white wine
1 can coconut milk
1 teaspoon fresh curry powder
4 diced Roma tomatoes
2 pounds fresh mussels, bearded, rinsed and picked through
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup sliced green onions
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh lime juice
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the butter over medium-high heat until it sizzles. Add the garlic, ginger and wine. Cook until the wine is reduced by half, then add the coconut milk. Continue to cook on medium-high heat until the coconut milk begins to simmer. Add the curry powder, and stir until the mixture turns golden. Add the tomatoes and mussels. Cover the pot and simmer until the mussels just open. Turn off heat, then garnish with the cilantro and green onions.
Season with salt, pepper and lime juice, according to taste. Add a dash of your favorite hot sauce, if desired. Serve with a side of steamed rice or toasted bread to soak up the broth.
(Makes 6 frozen treats)
Mir Ali adapted this frozen, spice-laden Indian dessert for the home kitchen to satiate his sweet tooth.
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
Prepare popsicle molds or 6 small glass jars for freezing.
Combine evaporated milk, condensed milk, heavy cream, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger in a large stockpot. Bring the creamy mixture to a low simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and strain it through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth into a bowl. Stir in the pistachios and let the mixture cool completely. Stir the mixture again, then pour half of the mixture evenly among the molds or jars and freeze. Pour the remaining half of the mixture evenly among the molds or jars and freeze until ready to serve.
Pork Belly Braise
This quick braise is Chef Will Oglesby’s go-to flavoring for the pork belly that spices up the Cubano sandwich at B. Matthew’s Eatery.
8- to 10-pound pork belly
For the dry rub:
Coarse sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
For the braising liquid:
2 cups ginger ale or ginger beer
2 cups water
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup cranberry juice
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 cups water
5 to 6 cloves of fresh garlic, crushed
Bouquet garnish of fresh herbs, including sage and thyme
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Wash the pork belly and pat dry. Cover all sides of the belly with the dry rub. Place the belly in a deep braising pan or dish. Stir together all of the braising liquid ingredients and pour over the pork. Toss in the garlic and herb sprigs. Cover the pork tightly with foil and braise in the oven for 3 to 4 hours.