All you need to shift your cooking from serviceable to superb
Like nutmeg, the edible rhizome of Zingiber officinale is often relegated to the subsidiary role of sweet spice — at least in American cooking. But travel nearly anywhere else in the world, from Morocco to Malaysia, Venezuela to Vietnam, and ginger plays the snappy star in soups, roasts, stews, and salads. Grate fresh ginger and garlic into peanut oil as the base for a superlative stir-fry. Stir into soups for a revitalizing broth. For a crisp, peppery salad, shred cabbage, carrots, and green beans and toss with ginger, vinegar, or lime juice, and maybe a dollop of peanut butter (or use your newly purchased tahini). Pulse ginger, chiles, and garlic in your food processor for a quick crust to sear onto meats or tofu. Ginger is a versatile gal, so don't be afraid to experiment.
Available at New May Wah Market, 707-719 Clement, SF. (415) 668-2583
FRESH LEMONS AND LIMES
Nothing wakes up heavy, sleepy flavors like a bright squeeze of acid, but don't even bother with the bottled stuff here. Before you juice, take a second to zest the thin colored rind — which contains tons of essential oils — from the outside of the fruit, being careful to stay away from the white pith. Then cut in half through the equator and squeeze. Older fruits can be coaxed to spill their juice by rolling back and forth between the palm and the cutting board. Or zap in the microwave for just a few seconds. Lemons add zip to Italian and French dishes, limes to Asian, Indian and Latin. The brave and adventurous might even try whole lemons or limes — rind, pith, pulp, and all — chopped very finely in salsas; crusts for veggies, fish or tofu; and marinades. An old-timey recipe for something called Funeral Pie uses whole lemons, thrown in a blender with some sugar, eggs, and a little flour. The result is poured in a pie crust and "Viola!" A super-quick desert ready in a flash, in case of Great Aunt Millie's untimely demise.
Bi-Rite Market stocks organic, biodynamic lemons and limes from Becks Grove whenever possible. 3639 18th St., SF. (415) 241-9760
BLACK BEAN SAUCE
Hot Chinese sriracha sauce might be manufactured right here in Northern California, but that's no excuse for indiscriminately squirting that sticky red rooster bottle over everything — from eggs to escargot — that stands still long enough. If it's spice you're craving, aim for a subtler, deeper flavor. Chinese-style black bean sauces, garlic or chili, provide plenty of heat without the cloying, vinegary sweetness of sriracha. Instead, their fire is mellow and a bit smoky, and develops on the tongue. Try over steamed veggies such as asparagus, broccoli, or bok choy. Use to marinate tofu or chicken, and serve over everything from tempeh to tacos. If you like the taste, try going a step further and purchasing some fermented black beans — a salty, spicy condiment something like a cross between miso and Marmite.
Available at Pang Kee Bargain Market, 1308 Stockton, SF., (415) 982-1959