Around Christmastime, when you search for recipes with “ginger,” you get exclusively sweet things: gingerbread, gingersnaps, ginger cake, ginger donuts, ginger biscotti, ginger muffins. But ginger is so much more. It’s one of the four or five ingredients that I am never, ever without. I would like to share with you my One Weird Trick for using ginger in a foolproof and easy way.
Nearly everything I cook starts with the same process: Get out a pan, put some oil in it, and saute some combination of chopped plants; on Top Chef this is referred to as “building flavor,” or sometimes as creating a base. Onion is pretty much a given. Garlic, usually. Also common are celery, carrot, and peppers. (Depending on which specific ingredients you use and the various subtleties of how you use them, these base ingredients are sometimes called mirepoix, or soffritto — or, confusingly, sofrito, which is not the same thing; soffritto is Italian, sofrito is Spanish/Latin American, with slightly different ingredients depending on even which Latin American country you’re talking about.) Ginger is a key ingredient in a flavor base for so, so many cuisines — Indian, Chinese, Thai, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Filipino — so it should be as present in your cooking as garlic or onion, and you should have it on hand at all times. This can be difficult, because though it is fairly hardy, it will dry out after a while, and what if you have a stretch where you’re only cooking French or Italian food? Your ginger will go bad.
Except it won’t, because you should freeze your ginger.
Ginger is often referred to as a root, because it grows underground and is sort of rooty looking, but it’s technically a rhizome, which is more like an underground stem. It’s native to China, which accounts for its prominence throughout Asia, but it was also the very first crop to be grown in the New World and exported back to the Old World, so the place where it was grown (Jamaica and surrounding islands, mostly) also developed a taste for it.
You should hardly ever freeze whole produce; it will turn to mush when the cell walls break during thawing. But frozen ginger doesn’t suffer from this, because you don’t need to thaw it. Simply toss the ginger in the freezer and when you need it, break off a knob — which should be fairly easy to do — then grate it with a good microplane. (Not some garbage knockoff. I have this one.) Start grating it over a bowl from the broken-off end. It will create fluffy ginger snow. Do not bother peeling it; not only is the peel edible, you won’t even notice it since you’re microplaning it into oblivion.
Frozen ginger will keep for a good few months, long enough for you to use it even if you don’t use it as often as I think you should (which is very often). Let me tell you: microplaned ginger packs all the punch of fresh. (One warning: Microplaned ginger, being in much smaller pieces than chopped ginger, will burn if you’re not careful, so be observant and use low heat.)
There isn’t really all that much variation in types of ginger, but there are three you should probably know about. First is your standard type — knobbly, tan to brown on the outside and yellow on the inside. This is available year-round, mostly grown in India and China; just don’t buy anything that looks shriveled or soft and you’ll be fine. Second. young ginger is only available seasonally, from around October to May, but is easiest to find in the spring. It’s pale, almost cream-colored, and ends in a pink tip. It is mild enough to eat raw without making your entire dish taste like ginger, and is traditionally used for that pink pickled ginger you get with sushi. The final type is galangal, which isn’t a type of standard ginger but is actually another, similar plant in the ginger family that is slightly paler and much harder to cut. Galangal is used most commonly in Thai cuisine, and Thai cooks will tell you that you shouldn’t substitute ginger for galangal, but galangal is really tricky to find and ginger’s flavor is at least similar enough that it’s better to use ginger than to use nothing from the ginger family.
Pretty much anything you make with Asian (East or South) flavors should include ginger, like this incredibly basic stir-fry. Grate a knob of frozen ginger about the size of your thumb with a microplane. Chop a few cloves of garlic, half an onion — any kind is fine — and one chile of your choice (or a small plop of sambal oelek, the bright red chile-garlic paste you find next to the sriracha). Get out your wok and turn the heat on low. (Note: Woks are supposed to be blasted with more heat than a New York City home kitchen is legally allowed to provide, but your tiny slivers of ginger will burn if you use too much heat at first.) Pour in some oil (peanut is best, vegetable is fine, olive is, like, okay, but use one of the others if you can) and let it heat. Toss in one small piece of onion; if it sizzles, you’re ready to go. If not, wait. When the wok is hot enough, toss in the onion and stir until translucent, then add the chile, the garlic and ginger, in that order. Stir constantly so as not to burn anything. Meanwhile, chop some sort of small crunchy green vegetable — green beans, zucchini, snow peas, or even brussels sprouts if they’re small enough. Maybe you’d also like some tofu. When the stuff in the wok is super fragrant, crank the heat up to high and throw in your vegetables and that tofu if you want. Stir constantly. Turn off your smoke alarm when it goes off. It’s done when it’s all hot and not raw-tasting, but still super crisp. Then toss with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (a sort of sweet rice wine), and rice wine vinegar in a ratio of around 1:2:2, but taste it and adjust until it tastes right. Add in a couple drops of sesame oil and salt if necessary. Serve as is or with rice.
Ginger tea is one of those magical healing liquids that I drink theoretically when I’m sick but mostly because I just like it a lot. It’s also incredibly easy to make. If you have frozen ginger, take out two thumb’s worth and microwave for fifteen seconds, just until you can slice it. Then slice as thinly as you can into discs. Put them in a small pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer and simmer it for maybe thirty or forty minutes. Strain out the ginger and discard, and then sweeten with sugar and sour with a squeeze of lime juice. That’s it! Oh, or: you can also, after straining out the ginger solids, keep this on the stove for another twenty minutes or so. This will reduce the water and make the tea stronger. Add a bit more sugar than you would for the tea, then reduce it even more, until it seems more viscous than before and tastes incredibly strongly of ginger. Now what you have is ginger syrup. In a tall glass, put in a bunch of ice cubes, then fill halfway with your new ginger syrup and fill the rest of the glass with seltzer. Mix thoroughly and you have homemade ginger ale.
BASIC GINGER VINAIGRETTE
This goes well on everything: raw vegetables, stir-fried vegetables, fish, chicken, beef, tofu, noodles. Take out a small container and microplane a knob’s worth of frozen ginger into it. Add rice wine, cider, or plain white vinegar, and mix. Pour in a touch of olive oil, less than you would for a traditional vinaigrette. Then add in some brown sugar, and taste. Too sour? Add more sugar. Too sweet? Add more vinegar. THIS IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT SALAD DRESSINGS AND IT TAKES TWO MINUTES TO MAKE.
SHITTY WINTER VEGETABLE AND GINGER SALAD
This works with any winter vegetable you can find, but is best when beets are included. Other possibilities: turnip, celeriac, kohlrabi, rutabaga. Peel and cut into matchsticks. (Yes, raw. Might sound weird but you eat other raw root vegetables, right? For example carrots.) This process sucks and will take awhile. If you want to do some other, easier shape, that’s fine, as long as the pieces are pretty small. When done, put in bowl. Big bowl. Biiiiiig salad bowl. Add one avocado, diced. (This isn’t really the time or place to teach you how to cut an avocado but I’m sure there’s a YouTube video that’ll do that.) Add raw scallions, sliced thinly. Add chopped cilantro. Add a bunch of your Basic Ginger Vinaigrette (you can sub out the rice wine vinegar for lime juice if you want here) and salt to taste. Maybe add peanuts? I add nuts to everything but peanuts are good here. Sounds weird but the combo of beet, avocado, and ginger is a real winner. For the sake of disclosure this is a partially stolen recipe from Mark Bittman, though I added avocado, and you should be glad I did, because it’s really tasty.
Ginger is a root (no pun intended, because as we now know, ginger is not a root, it is a rhizome, haha, cool fact) flavor; you can’t always taste it, but you can always taste when it isn’t there. Any cook who wants to venture out beyond the cuisines of western Europe will have to contend with it; it is as central to Asian food as the onion is to western food. And it should be as such in your kitchen! Remember: just freeze it and grate it. And all of these recipes are extremely simple for a reason; ginger should not be a threatening exotic ingredient, nor should your use of it be restricted to powdered ginger in baked goods. It should be as familiar and as friendly an ingredient as your everyday yellow onion.