George O'Neal was twenty-three years old when he started Lil' Farm. Originally, O'Neal worked in landscaping. He loved working his fingers through soil instead of tapping them against a keyboard, but he wanted to make an impact beyond people's backyards.
"Farming was the only thing that I wanted to do all the time," he says
So, for the past eleven years, that's what he's been doing. Except for three weeks in early December—that's ginger syrup season.
Visit one of Lil' Farm's stands this week at the Carrboro or Durham farmers markets and you'll find what the farm is growing on six acres. Thirty-nine tomato varieties. Lemon cucumbers. Thai pumpkins—wait, pumpkins?
"Winter squash can't grow in the winter," O'Neal says. "Our watermelons and butternuts come out of the field on the same day."
You'll also find something that didn't come out the field recently: ginger.
A few years ago, O'Neal earned a grant from the Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) to start a new, value-added product.
"I was growing a bunch of ginger and turmeric, but they have such a short window, and such fanfare," he says. "People wanted these ingredients, but you can only get them three weeks a year."
Through the grant, he turned those weeks into a marathon of preserving. His team triples in size with the addition of friends including Ari Berenbaum, whose Ninth Street Bakery becomes Lil' Farm's commissary. They spend the first part of the day harvesting the ginger, turmeric, and galangal. Then, in the middle of the night, before the bakers arrive, they wash, slice, and cook the roots with organic sugar, lemon juice, and black pepper. This occurs six days a week, three weeks in a row.
Because it is harvested so young, the baby ginger hasn't formed its signature thick skin. Instead, it's tender like a carrot.
Find dehydrated ginger, ginger and turmeric preserved in syrup, or straight ginger syrup year-round at Lil' Farm's market stands, Foster's Market, Funny Girl Farm, and at NanaSteak in its Carolina Mule.
This bright orange dressing gets color and substance from those forgotten carrots in your crisper drawer. You can make a similar dressing with fresh ginger, but syrup eliminates peeling around those knobby nooks and crannies. It also creates a silkier dressing. Add a teaspoon or so more syrup, miso, or vinegar, if you want it sweeter, saltier, or more acidic. Do not substitute canola for something more flavorful, like sesame; that will hog too much attention.
Yield: about 1 cup
4 ounces carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons Queen George's ginger syrup
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon miso, preferably red
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup canola oil
Pulse the carrots, ginger syrup, miso, and vinegar in a food processor or blender until completely smooth, scraping down with a rubber spatula as needed. With the motor running, slowly add the canola oil, until thick and emulsified. Chill completely before using. This best suits a low-key lettuce, like iceberg or romaine. It's also a lovely dip for cucumbers and radishes.
SPICY CANTALOUPE CARPACCIO WITH PROSCIUTTO AND MINT
Carpaccio is as light and summery as it gets. This version ups the summer ante by swapping out pricey beef or fish for everyday cantaloupe. Zingy ginger syrup, a pinch of chili flakes, and salty prosciutto keep the sweetness in check. This is the sort of starter you should make with your second glass of white wine in hand, so if you're obsessing about measurements, you're doing it wrong. Trust yourself, taste a melon ribbon, adjust if needed. And make sure you serve the dish very cold.
Serves two, as a starter
1/4 cantaloupe, peeled and cut into wedges
2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced
Queen George's ginger syrup
Extra-virgin olive oil
Red chili flakes
Fresh mint leaves
Carefully cut the cantaloupe wedges on a mandoline, to shave into almost transparent ribbons. (You can use a knife, too.) Arrange on a plate, weaving the prosciutto slices. Chill until completely cold. Drizzle daintily with ginger syrup, olive oil, and lemon juice. Sprinkle with salt, chili flakes, and mint leaves. Taste. Adjust as needed. Serve immediately.
Salty Ginger Peach Lassi
Lassis are a yogurt-based drink original to India. Super cold, a little salty, sometimes fruity. In the States, you'll often find sweet mango lassis. This recipe relies on salt, spicy ginger, and a hit of black pepper to balance the peaches and keep everything lively. Frozen peaches create a slushie-like texture. You can buy these at the supermarket, already prepared, or stock up on the fresh seasonal bounty and prep and freeze them in advance.
Yield: 2 cups
1 1/2 cups frozen sliced peaches
1 cup plain yogurt, lowfat or whole milk
2 tablespoons Queen George's ginger syrup
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
A inch freshly ground black pepper
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until very, very smooth. Serve immediately.