Lemon Grass — Off the Beaten Aisle

By: J.M. Hirsch

It may look and sound like a weed, but lemon grass actually is one of the most important ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking. And it can transform the all-American foods you love.

Lemon grass is a reed-like plant that grows as a thin, firm 2-foot stalk with a small bulb at the base. It varies in color from pale yellow to very light green.

True to name, lemon grass has a pleasantly assertive lemon taste and aroma.

Lemon grass generally is used one of three ways: whole in simmering, whole as a skewer and finely sliced in just about anything you like. Let’s start with simmering. Use this method when you want a gentle lemon aroma and flavor in a dish with plenty of liquid, such as soups or braises. To do this, trim the stalk to just the bottom 6 inches, then lay it flat and pound with a meat mallet or rolling pin until well bruised (to release the flavor). Add the bruised stalks to the liquid and simmer for the recipe’s normal cooking time. Discard the stalk before serving.

The whole stalks also can be used as skewers to lend a subtle flavor to grilled meat. Just trim the stalks to the desired length, then thread chicken or beef cubes over it. You may need to use a paring knife to poke holes in the meat first.

For a more assertive flavor, trim away all but the bottom 2 to 3 inches of the stalk, then discard the tough outer layers. Slice the lemon grass crosswise very thin, then add to soups, stews, sautés and stir-fries. No need to fish it out.

Lemon grass pairs best with meat and seafood, as well as other signature flavors of Southeast Asia, including ginger and coconut milk.

Lemon grass is available all year in the grocer’s produce section. Look for firm stalks that aren’t wilted or dried. It keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator.

So what to do with it?

• Make a simple coconut chicken soup by simmering a bruised lemon grass stalk and leftover cooked chicken in coconut milk and chicken broth. Add peas, chopped onions, garlic and sliced mushrooms. Finish with chopped fresh cilantro, salt and pepper.

• Follow the recipe above, but substitute shrimp for the chicken (adding them only during the final 3 to 4 minutes of simmering).

• Finely slice the inner layers of the bottom 2 inches of the stalk, then mince the slices. Add to meatloaf and meatballs.

• Add finely diced lemon grass (center layers of the stalk only) to a chili of browned ground chicken, coconut milk, lime juice, onions, garlic, chili powder, paprika, cumin and cayenne. Finish with cilantro, salt and pepper.

• Add a bruised lemon grass stalk to your favorite chicken soup or corn chowder recipes during simmering.

• Saute shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced onions and finely sliced lemon grass (center layers of the stalk only) with olive oil. Add a bit of cream, then use this sauce to top roasted salmon.

Lemon Grass Chicken Stir-Fry
Start to finish: 20 minutes active (plus 1 hour marinating)
Servings: 4

Two 4-inch pieces lemon grass, lightly crushed with a meat mallet or rolling pin

¼ cup canola oil, plus 2 tablespoons
½ cup white wine
½ tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon dry ginger

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1½ pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks

3 cups broccoli florets
2 red bell peppers, cored and cut into strips
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ cup cool water
Rice or egg noodles, for serving

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the lemon grass, ¼ cup of the canola oil and wine. Heat to a low simmer, then set aside to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, in a spice grinder, combine the peppercorns, salt, garlic powder, cumin and ginger. Grind until reduced to a fine powder. Stir this mixture into the oil and lemon grass mixture, then transfer the entire thing to a large bowl. Add the chicken, toss to coat, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

When ready to cook, heat a wok or large, deep sauté pan over medium-high. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil and heat until nearly smoking.

Add the broccoli and red peppers and sauté until just starting to brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to a plate.

Discard the lemon grass from the chicken, then add the chicken to the pan, reserving the marinade in the bowl. Cook until starting to brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the marinade from the bowl to the wok and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes. In a glass, mix together the cornstarch and water, then add to the pan.

Cook until the sauce thickens, about 2 minutes. Return the vegetables to the pan and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over rice or noodles.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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