I enjoy reading author Su-Mei Yu because she writes things like, "The perfume released from galangal reminds me of the warm and fresh scent in the air after a heavy downpour of monsoon."
That makes me want to run in the kitchen and cook with galangal, so I interviewed her about it. And when I did, the wet-weather metaphors continued. "Sliver a tablespoon or two of young galangal into matchsticks and add to your salad," she suggested. "It is like sprinkling a bit of a rain shower over it as it magically perks up other ingredients by sharpening their tastes and flavors."
Born in Thailand, Yu is an avid health-food crusader and food historian. She is also the author of "The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living" (Wiley, 2009) , a simply gorgeous book. She was full of other tantalizing suggestions for using galangal, but before I get to those, let me back up a bit.
What is galangal, you ask?
Much like ginger, it's a rhizome: commonly referred to as a root, but technically (and more accurately) an underground stem. Used in Thai, Malaysian, Moroccan and Indonesian cooking, galangal is very aromatic, with a spicy, almost peppery taste.
There are two primary types of galangal: greater and lesser. We're interested in greater galangal, which is the one used in Thai cooking and more commonly available in large Asian grocery stores. Lesser galangal is more often used in medicine than in cooking and is usually sold in jars; if you are unsure which is which, ask.
When purchasing galangal, look for young pieces that have a shiny, almost translucent peel with gentle shades of peachy beige. They can be eaten raw or added to stir-fries. Older galangal roots are hard and woody, generally pounded into pastes before use. To store, just wrap galangal in a paper bag and refrigerate. It should stay fresh for months.
Now on to Yu's suggestions for using galangal: Mince and mix with freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil and slather all over a chicken, then stuff six or seven more slices of galangal and the rinds of the lemon you just squeezed in the cavity; and roast. Add a few slices to your pot of chicken soup, or when making apple cider to give it a new personality.
You can buy galangal dried, but Yu does not prefer it for cooking. She does suggest that it makes a nice spa potion for massaging into aching muscles: Combine a teaspoon or so with 1/4 cup almond or rice bran oil and cook for a few minutes over low heat.
I spoke with nutritionist Wendy Bazilian, co-author of "The SuperFoodsRx Diet" (Rodale, 2008) about the value of adding galangal to the diet. She told me that it has ingredients that have shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, contains antioxidants and, much like ginger, is a natural digestive aid and can help with nausea.
Form, function, flavor and the smell of monsoons -- what more could you ask from an ingredient?
GLAZED PEARS IN LEMONGRASS AND GALANGAL SYRUP
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Put the lemongrass, galangal, lemon zest and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the lemongrass, galangal and lemon zest. Increase the heat to medium, add the sugar, and stir to mix. When the sugar is dissolved, add the pears, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook until the liquid turns syrupy, 25 to 30 minutes, turning the pears occasionally.
Serve warm or cold with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
-- Adapted from "The Elements of Life" by Su-Mei Yu
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