The Simple Pleasures of Homemade Pickled Ginger and Gingery Ground Beef with Peas Over Rice

Easy-peasy soboro donburi -- with homemade pickled ginger and fresh summer tomatoes.
Easy-peasy soboro donburi — with homemade pickled ginger and fresh summer tomatoes.

Anyone who knows me knows I am an absolute, unabashed, crazed ginger fiend. I’m the one sitting at the sushi bar, who’s always nagging the chef for seconds — even thirds — of pickled ginger. Yup, I am that person.

Yet surprisingly, I’d never made my own pickled ginger.

And what a fool I’ve been, now that I know how embarrassingly easy and fast it is to make at home.

My impetus for making my own pickled ginger came about when I saw that it was a garnish for a dish of “Gingery Ground Beef with Peas Over Rice” that I intended to make.

When I scanned the ingredients list of various jarred pickled gingers sold online, I was aghast. Quite a few of them contained the artificial sweetener, aspartame. Why? Oh, why?! That was such an immediate turnoff, that I decided to make my own instead.

“Quick Pickled Ginger” is a recipe by David Tanis, the former head chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse for years.

All you do is thinly slice peeled ginger, and submerge the slices in a mix of salt, sugar and rice vinegar with a cut radish or beet. It’s ready to eat after only 1 hour. Or let it pickle overnight, by which time the radish or beet will tinge the ginger the faintest pink.

Just a few ingredients is all it takes to make your own pickled ginger.
Just a few ingredients is all it takes to make your own pickled ginger.
The pickled ginger -- a day later, with the radish coloring it.
The pickled ginger — a day later, with the radish coloring it.

This is pickled ginger that truly tastes fresh, with that lovely sharp heat on the back of the throat, and just enough sweetness for balance without deadening the blissful bite of the ginger.

It really is a perfect accompaniment to “Gingery Ground Beef with Peas Over Rice (Soboro Donburi),” a rustic, homey dish by Japanese food and culture authority Elizabeth Andoh.

I stumbled upon her recipe in the Food & Wine magazine archives, when I was looking for a new dish to showcase ground beef that I’d received as a sample from Cream Co. Meats.

If you’re not familiar with this Oakland distributor for sustainable ranches across the West, you should get to know it. Now is an especially opportune time because this whole-animal butchery’s meats used to be only available to the best chefs in the Bay Area. But when the pandemic hit and so many restaurants curtailed operations, Cream Co. began offering its products direct to consumers.

The company is already planning for the holidays, gearing up to offer heritage and sustainable turkeys, prime rib, crown roasts, and other celebratory cuts. Look for them in the weeks to come.

Meantime, shop by the specific cut or protein. Or opt for a “Bunker Box,” a curated collection of meats. Cream Co. sent me its “Basic Bunker Box” ($59) to try out. It includes: one pasture-raised chicken, 12 ounces of bacon, 1 pound of ground beef, 1 pound of heritage Duroc ground pork, and 1 pound of beef strips fajitas strips. All of it arrives frozen.

For the ground beef, I wanted to showcase it in something other than the usual burgers, meatballs or meatloaf.

Ground beef from Cream Co. Meats.
Ground beef from Cream Co. Meats.

When I read that Food & Wine named Andoh’s “Soboro Donburi” one of its “40 Best Recipes” in 2018, I was sold.

This recipe could not be any easier. The ground beef just gets cooked in a pot on the stove-top with sake, soy sauce, dashi, sugar, ginger, and frozen peas that have been thawed.

I didn’t have sake on hand, so I ended up using mirin instead and omitting the sugar in the recipe since the Japanese sweet rice wine made for cooking already has sugar in it. I think it worked great, too.

You let the mixture cook until the liquid is nearly evaporated. At first, it looks like quite a lot of liquid. But trust — give it time, and it will cook out, concentrating the flavors.

Mound some fluffy rice in a bowl and top with some of the beef before garnishing with pickled ginger and/or slices of fresh tomato. This is a very comforting, country-style dish full of sweet, savory, and umami notes. The fresh tomato adds another layer of umami, while the pickled ginger offers up delightful bites of sweet prickly heat.

The recipe says it serves 4. But if you have hearty eaters, it might be only enough for 3.

But if you’re like me, you can just stuff yourself silly with pickled ginger instead.

A bountiful bowl of comfort.
A bountiful bowl of comfort.

Quick Pickled Ginger

(Makes about 2 ounces worth of ginger)

One (3-inch) piece ginger, peeled and sliced very thin

1 red radish, sliced or 1 slice red beet, optional for color

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

Put all the ingredients in a small jar and stir. Make sure the ginger is submerged. Leave at room temperature for 1 hour before using. Discard radish or beet. Or alternately, refrigerate the jar of ginger overnight with the radish or beet, allowing it to color the ginger more. (And if you use a radish, it ends up plenty tasty, so you can just eat it, rather than discard it.)

The ginger may be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Adapted from a New York Times recipe by David Tanis

Gingery Ground Beef with Peas over Rice (Soboro Donburi)

(Serves 3 to 4)

1 pound (90 percent lean) ground beef

1/3 cup sake (see Note)

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup dashi or water

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar (see Note)

1/2 cup frozen English peas, thawed

1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger

5 cups hot cooked rice

2 tablespoons Japanese pickled ginger (store-bought or home-made with recipe above) or 1 large tomato, sliced

Stir together ground beef, sake, soy sauce, dashi, and sugar in a small Dutch oven or medium-size, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high, stirring often to break up large lumps of beef, 5 minutes. Stir in peas and ginger; cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is mostly evaporated and beef is no longer pink but is still moist, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Divide rice evenly among 3 to 4 bowls. Top with beef mixture. Garnish with pickled ginger and/or tomato slices.

Note: If you don’t have sake on hand, substitute the same amount of mirin and omit the granulated sugar instead.

Adapted from a recipe by Elizabeth Andoh, as published in Food & Wine magazine

More: What Else I Made with Cream Co. Meats’ Delivery Box — Thai Barbecued Chicken

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