This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:
At first glance, galangal resembles ginger. But a closer look reveals a squat, knobby, butter-colored root that, unlike ginger, has translucent skin marked by dark concentric rings and relatively few branches. A member of the ginger family, galangal is reminiscent of its cousin rhizome in spice but not in sweetness. Galangal has a distinct pepper and mustard flavor with a floral note. Galangal grows in China, Southeast Asia and parts of India.
Galangal appears in Arabic writings as early as the ninth century, and the name comes from the Arabic word khalanjan, which is derived from the Chinese, meaning "ginger of Kau-liang." It was introduced to Europe by Arabian spice traders, and became very popular in the cooking of medieval Europe, but fell out of favor as the elaborate spice concoctions of that time gave way to a simpler cuisine.
Galangal is often used by Chinese, Indian and European physicians to treat the hiccups, nausea and other stomach discomforts.
HOW TO SELECT: Look for smallish roots with firm, unblemished skin. If the root appears wrinkled, then it is old, dry and tough. The smaller roots are more tender, whereas the large roots tend to be very woody, medicinal-tasting and hard to cut.
Galangal is available year-round, though it is harvested in the summer and fall. It is widely available in larger Asian stores, particularly Thai grocery stores.
HOW TO STORE: Galangal can be stored in the vegetable drawer of a refrigerator for two to three weeks. First wrap the galangal in plastic wrap or, preferably, wrap the root first in a damp cloth, then in a plastic bag.
Galangal can be frozen without losing any flavor. Cut the unpeeled root into slices a quarter-inch thick, wrap in plastic and freeze for up to three months.
Unlike ginger, galangal does not need to be peeled. Thoroughly rinse the root under cold water, rubbing away any dirt, and pat dry.
HOW TO PREPARE: Galangal has a strong, aromatic, punchy flavor that can be overwhelming, so use the root sparingly.
When cooked, galangal does not soften; it should be either left in large slices so it can be strained prior to serving or very finely chopped so the texture does not interfere with the resulting dish.
To infuse soups, stews or teas with galangal, cut into quarter-inch-thick slices, simmer over low heat then strain prior to serving. A slice or two of galangal perks up plain steamed rice.
For other types of dishes, such as stir-fries and salads, slice it thinly, stack the slices and cut them into a very thin julienne. For curry pastes, chop finely, and then mash with the other flavorings in a blender or with a mortar and pestle. (It is essential for Thai curry pastes, where it does not get lost among the pronounced flavors of lemongrass, chili peppers and dried shrimp.)
Galangal's spicy mustard flavor highlights all types of seafood, whether incorporated into a marinade, vinaigrette or poaching liquid. Try steaming fish or clams, mussels or cockles cooked in an aromatic broth of a few slices of galangal and a little sake or white wine. Or add a few slices of galangal to a tomato-based seafood stew during simmering for an interesting twist.
Galangal adds character to long-simmered beef stews, but it is also good when it's finely chopped and used with a little garlic in a quick beef stir-fry.
Raw galangal makes a great addition to shellfish and calamari salads when combined with fish sauce, Thai chili peppers and lime juice. And for an extra pop, add raw galangal to your favorite salsa.
-- Dawn Woodward
Dawn Woodward is a chef and cooking instructor from Washington who recently moved to Philadelphia.