After tainted Mexican food left her decimated with hepatitis A – and unable to take medication, despite unbearable symptoms - Cathy Shapiro went online.
Ginger kept popping up as the preschool teacher searched for natural remedies. And those queries jogged Shapiro’s memories of her long-gone Polish-born bubbe.
“She used to put a paste of ginger and water on my head when I had a headache. She’d mix ginger and honey for my sore throat. And she’d make ginger tea when I had an upset stomach,” Shapiro recalled. “I had forgotten most of these childhood cures.”
Five years later, and completely recovered, Shapiro’s spreading the gospel of ginger through her Baltimore business, Cathy’s Ginger Spices. At five local farmers’ markets and a handful of shops, Shapiro’s peddling hand-ground spices, ginger-infused cooking oils, and potent ginger juices to a growing fan base of health fanatics, foodies, and buy-local enthusiasts.
“My business has at least doubled, if not more, since launch,” Shapiro told the Forward from her home-office in Pikesville, a heavily Jewish northwest Baltimore suburb. “I owe a lot of it to my bubbe, and to my background,” Shapiro said. “And even to getting hep A. God closes one door and opens another.”
Shapiro’s most popular items are her cold-pressed ginger juices; she extracts the liquid by hand in a painstakingly slow process. “You don’t lose any nutrients that way,” she said. Her ginger-lemonade, ginger-pineapple juice, and ginger iced-tea lemonade, in 12-ounce bottles with homemade labels, are a close second.
But it’s spices that drive the business. I can vouch for the irresistible ginger/mint/dried pineapple combo, which I bought from Shapiro at the Fells Point Farmers’ Market on a recent visit to Baltimore. I can’t get enough of it on grilled chicken and fish, and I’ve even sneaked tastes straight from the jar.
Other varieties include ginger-pumpkin, ginger-basil-mint, and ginger-lemon; Shapiro just rolled out ginger-cinnamon chipotle, suggested by a local firefighter who became a regular customer. Spices retail for $5. And her ginger-infused grapeseed oil ($10) pairs beautifully with salads and pastas.
The process of making a spice is arduous. Shapiro dries and grinds fresh ginger using a dehydrator. “I keep the temperature below 110 degrees so people on raw diets can eat it,” she said. She also dries and grinds the herbs and spices she mixes in.
After mixing small batches of each flavor, she tastes the combo on unsalted soda crackers – “and I get my poor family to taste every one” – before making adjustments.
Finally, she’ll experiment with recipes to see how the final spice batches interact with protein, vegetable, pasta, “or whatever else I can think of.”
Shapiro herself uses ginger to spice up matzo balls. “They’re my secret ingredient!” she laughed. “It gives them much brighter, happier flavor. That’s my big ginger nod in Jewish food.”
Shapiro grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn – “Ocean Avenue, right next to the Midwood Synagogue,” she said. “I remember going with my bubbe every Friday to 13th Avenue to pick out a chicken. We’d pick the cutest one, and they’d cut the head off.” In Baltimore, she raised a family while working in marketing, then as a teacher. “But I love what I do now,” she said. “I love getting up in the morning. Every day is a new adventure.”
Her products are not kosher, though that may change as the business grows. “I haven’t had the money yet to get the hecksher,” she said. “But I would love to.” Ginger, she added, is one of the few spices mentioned in the Talmud. “Pesachim 42b,” Shapiro said. “Anything which is good for this is bad for that and anything that is bad for this is good for that, except for fresh ginger, long peppers, refined bread, fatty meat, and old wine which are good for one’s entire body.”
What’s next? “I’d like to be the ginger lady on a major scale,” she said. “Cathy’s can be the company that pulls ginger into a national spotlight. But I want to make sure I have all my products together. And at that point, obviously, you have to be ready for factory production.”
In the meantime, she said, “I’m a control freak. Someday, when I get bigger, I’ll write all this down so that someone else can do it.”
Ginger Matzo Balls
1/4 cup each oil (I recommend vegetable oil) and club soda
2 teaspoons each ground Ginger, kosher salt and white pepper
1 cup of matzo meal
Mix together all ingredients except Matza Meal.
Combine but do not over mix.
Add in Matza Meal and mix with a spoon until just blended and refrigerate for at least 1 hour longer is better.
Fill a large pot 3/4 filled with water and bring to a roiling boil.
Drop well formed Matza balls into pot, cover but vent the pot and cook for 11/2 hours at a slight boil.