Photos and Words by Samantha Levy
Have you ever walked through the spice aisle at the grocery store and stopped and thought, “What on Earth is that?” or seen a knobby looking thing in the produce section and thought, “That looks like the tree root I saw on my morning walk”? If you said “yes” to either question, or are looking to spice up your favorite dishes and learn how to tackle a new ingredient, I have a few secrets to share with you.
Ginger is a unique flavor that blurs the line between savory and sweet. It looks scary in its natural form, I’ll admit, but the exciting and tangy flavor is worth any momentary fear. It looks sort of like a straangely-shaped potato, or the foot of an animal...but in fact it is actually only the root of the beautiful ginger flower.
When you buy it, it should be bulbous and firm, not at all soft. The best way to store it is refrigerated in a paper bag or wrapped in a towel inside a plastic bag, although many people like to keep it in the freezer so it lasts longer. To do this, break up the root into large sections, peel them, then put the pieces into a resealable freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible as you seal the bag.
Fresh ginger is commonly served with sushi because it is a natural complement to fish, and it is also intended to cleanse the palate between different sushi dishes. Ginger root is also a favorite flavor in Caribbean dishes, and can be used in East Asian-inspired dishes like dumplings, with meat, in fruit chutneys, or in desserts such as sorbet or pie.
It has a tan-colored skin that you’ll need to peel off using a vegetable/potato peeler, but only peel the section you plan on using to maintain freshness. Peeling can be difficult because of the bulbs, but it is still the easiest way to access the fibrous interior. Once you have it peeled, you can slice it up with a knife or grate it finely on a microplane, a handheld single-plane fine grater.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh ginger is to add a small amount of it to fresh whipped cream to use as a topping for pies, but it also adds a new dimension to stir-fry dishes.
I know you’re familiar with garlic, but I’m not talking about garlic powder or garlic salt that comes in a bottle with a shaker lid. I’m talking about an entire head of garlic that has a papery, onion-like exterior and makes you feel like a chef whenever you reach for it in the kitchen. It makes flavors pop and can be used in anything from salad dressing to mashed potatoes.
It’s best kept in a cool place away from direct sunlight where there is air circulation. When you are ready to use it, grab onto one of the bumps, or cloves and separate it from the head. Place the individual clove on your cutting board, putting the flat side of your knife against it. Using your fist, push down onto your blade. The pressure should make the papery exterior easier to peel off, and once you have the smooth clove in your hands you can attack it the old-fashioned way by chopping it, using a garlic press to mince it, grating it, or using it whole.
Next time you make mashed potatoes, toss a few whole cloves into the boiling water with the potatoes and you can forget about them until the flavor explodes in your mouth! I also love to use fresh garlic in salad dressings by finely chopping it and whisking together with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Using a vanilla bean when your recipe calls for vanilla extract is an easy way to intensify the rich and soothing flavor of vanilla in any dish. I’ll admit that the convenience of vanilla extract can’t be beat, but I recommend that you try using a vanilla bean in a dish you really want to stand out. Vanilla beans can be used to flavor ice cream, creme brûlée, cakes, cheesecakes, to add a new flavor to hot cocoa, or in just about any other dessert.
The cost of a vanilla bean is the scariest part of the ingredient because of the labor-intensive process it takes to ferment the pod of an orchid, but it is surprisingly easy to use in the kitchen. Cut off the tip of the pod, then slice lengthwise down the center of the pod. Use the tip or flat edge of your knife along the bean to scrape out the seeds and add it to your recipe. You can also use the empty pod to flavor sugar or coffee. Did you know you can even make your own vanilla extract?
Active time: 3 minutes
Total time: 3 minutes
Yield: 1 bottle
- 12 vanilla beans
- 1 bottle vodka
- Combine the vanilla beans and vodka in a jar tall enough to hold the vanilla beans (or right in the vodka bottle).
- Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for a least a month until the vodka becomes vanilla extract and the beans are soft enough to cut the end and squeeze the seeds out. Add more vodka or beans, as needed. The extract can sit at room temperature indefinitely.
Thyme is an herb that is commonly used in its dried form. Few people buy it fresh or grow it themselves. Fresh thyme is sold in bundles of sprigs, or stems, and should be stored in the refrigerator. Thyme is extremely versatile and imparts a savory taste and warmth to dishes. It goes well with all vegetables, adds tremendous flavor to soups and stuffing, and can be mixed with other herbs including rosemary, tarragon, and lavender to create a traditional called Herbes de Provence, a staple in French cooking.
To use fresh thyme, rinse and pat dry. Tie a string around it to form a little bouquet, perhaps accompanied by other fresh herbs. Alternatively, you can put the whole bouquet in cheesecloth and tie it closed. Drop either the tied bouquet or the cheesecloth packet into your pot of soup, broth, or sauce. The most common way to use fresh thyme is to rinse and pat it dry, then to pick the leaves off the stem manually. Thyme really stands out when put inside a roasting chicken or turkey, or when used in a Thanksgiving-style stuffing.