The produce aisle can be a little overwhelming. You’ve got your super-fresh stuff, your local stuff, your organic stuff, your what-the-heck-is-that stuff. Maybe you have a baby in the cart, or a kid tugging on your hand to get to the cereal aisle as fast as humanly possible. Perhaps you have a short, tight list because you do most of your produce shopping at the farmer’s market or you’re in a CSA—a particularly smart move this time of year.
Regardless of your supermarket strategy, there are five fresh foods I suggest you always pick up from this aisle. Nowadays, as a cook who makes Thai and Indian recipes as frequently as she does Italian ones, I find that I need these the most frequently, and curse myself when I do not have them.
Man, what can’t you do with a lemon? You can squeeze them to brighten the flavor of fish, chicken, vegetables, or beans. You can use them for dressings and for cocktails. After juicing them, you can re-use their rinds to make a lemon-sugar oil called oleo saccharum for punches that’s a darn dream. You can slice them thinly and use them as garnishes for the punch or for whole fish. Limes are great, sure, but lemon is a clean, bright flavor; there’s a reason they use the fake version of it in air fresheners and the like. Always have lemons, if you can, and store them in the refrigerator to make them last longer.
You saw this one coming. My favorite pizza sauce contains nine whole cloves of garlic. One needs garlic for Thai, Indian, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Israeli, and all sorts of other cuisines. Its flavor shifts and morphs depending on how you cook it. (Have you had it confited or roasted yet? Let today be the day.) Look for plump, firm bulbs with dry skins that feel tight. You don’t want soft or shriveled cloves. Though we’re supposed to store whole heads of garlic in a cool, dark place away from other foods, I tend to pop mine in the fridge door, and haven’t had issues.
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Oh, shallots. If you’ve only been buying fat onions and waiting a million years for them to cook down, consider the little pink shallot. The shallot is the kickass jumpsuit of the onion family. Its flavor is incredibly delicate. When I need a ten-minute veggie side and nothing else is manifesting as vegetable-like in my fridge, I grab a package of mushrooms. I sauté minced shallots in a bit of butter over low heat, stirring frequently until they’re translucent, verging on golden. I tip in cleaned, sliced mushrooms, waiting until they’ve released a ton of liquid, then soaked it all back up again. Boom: Classic French preparation of sautéed mushrooms, ready to serve alongside steak, over chicken, next to greens, or tucked into an omelet. (The best salad dressings have chopped shallot, too!) I store them on the fridge door next to the garlic, but you could use a cool, dry place.
When we make stir-fries and curries, they’re brown more often than not. Adding verdant sliced scallions on top will incur the response you want from guests. Scallions indicate intentionality on the part of the cook. Like shallots, they’re a member of the onion family, but they’re unique. Buy those that are not remotely wrinkled. Look for a firm base and intact, bright-green tops, and store them wrapped in plastic in the crisper. Sauté whole scallions in olive oil with salt and pepper. Throw them briefly on the grill as you would spring onions, to top tacos or chicken breasts. Slice them finely to add a green, bright top note to phở, curry, stir-fries, any rice noodle dish, omelets and scrambles, tofu and anything else that needs a finishing bite. I often add them when there’s no sign of herbs anywhere in my home, and they happily pinch-hit.
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If you cook any sort of Asian cuisine—an enormous category spanning Japan, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and so on—you have likely seen ginger make cameos in recipes. I have Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking and Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, both of which are excellent, in frequent rotation right now. Jaffrey has plenty of recipes calling for ginger, and Dunlop cites the food writer Yan-kit So as calling fresh ginger, garlic and spring onions the Chinese “kitchen trinity.” So if you’ve allocated knobby, ugly ginger to something you only buy when you’re battling a sore throat—it is excellent sliced and tucked into a toddy along with a clove-studded lemon half—think bigger. Keep it around, use a spoon’s tip to peel it, and try using a microplane to get it pulpy and aromatic and sweet. Tuck it into the base of a sauté along with garlic and scallions and see where it takes you. Consider it for fish, or for a dressing to pour over tofu or rice noodles. Toss a few coins into a stock—even one you make in a pressure cooker—to brighten it and add a bouquet. Wrap ginger tightly in plastic wrap, store it in the fridge, and look to it when you want to fox up a cauliflower or carrot soup that would otherwise be ho-hum.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.