Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: The vibrant root (well technically, rhizome) you should be eating more of.
If you have a jar of ground turmeric in your spice rack, it’s probably for one of two reasons. One: You cook a lot of cuisines that call for it in their dishes (like Indian, Thai, or Persian, perhaps) and your jar of ground turmeric gets almost as much use as salt, the kitchen hussy. Or, two: You picked up a jar of it ages ago for a recipe that called for a small amount -- probably more for color than flavor -- and your ground turmeric sees less action than juniper berries.
Don’t get me wrong, I like its color-boosting powers, especially in scrambled tofu. There’s a reason it’s sometimes referred to as "poor man’s saffron" -- it has a lot of value as an all-natural coloring agent: It’s used to color everything from mustard to chicken soup. (You can also use ground turmeric to dye Easter eggs.)
It’s just that we sometimes pigeonhole turmeric, thinking of it only in its dried, ground form -- if not as a coloring agent, than as an integral ingredient of curry powder. But as with all jars of spices in our cupboards, they originate as plants. Although other parts of the turmeric plant are edible, what we’re talking about using today is the rhizome. (So it's technically not the root, but I thought if I lead with a mandate to eat more of a rhizome, I’d lose you before I’ve begun.)
Turmeric has medicinal value as well, which Diane Morgan reviews in Roots: “The yellow compound found in the rhizome is curcumin, which has been the focus of several scientific studies into its anti-inflammatory and anticancer potential, based on its antioxidant strength.” It’s also used in Ayurvedic medicine to heal wounds, relieve abdominal pain, and treat a wide variety of other ailments.
While we can’t recommend eating more turmeric for any purported medical benefits (this is the part where we insert the tiny font warnings from drug commercials and advise you to talk to your doctor before undertaking a new medical regimen), we can encourage you to introduce more fresh turmeric into your diet for the benefit of adding color and flavor to your plate. If you haven't worked with it much, it has a slight musty smell and a bit of an earthy, bitter sharpness. Enjoyed fresh, turmeric has a sweetness to it, too.
Try looking for fresh turmeric at a specialty grocery store, heath food store, or Indian or Asian market. Store it in the refrigerator: Wrap it in paper towel, and then pop it in a plastic bag. It will keep well for a week or two. If you notice any mold, cut it off and replace the paper towel.
Fresh turmeric looks like ginger consciously coupled with a carrot for the sole purpose of creating eye-catching offspring with stunningly beautiful, vibrantly orange flesh (and, as at least part of its good looks suggest, turmeric is in fact closely related to ginger). Fresh turmeric should be peeled (1, far above) with a paring knife, vegetable peeler, or spoon (as you can do with ginger), and then prepared as desired. It's easier to grate (2) than ginger is, as it's less fibrous. Just remember the part about it being a natural dye -- it's equally effective on your cutting board and your fingers. Tip: Wash cutting surfaces immediately and either wear gloves or be prepared for yellow fingers.
Then, try using using fresh turmeric in one of these seven tasty ways:
Tell us: How do you like to use fresh turmeric?
Photos by Mark Weinberg