Up until a few months ago I had an unexplained fear of lemongrass. My anxiety was, I will admit, ridiculous and once I realized that it was bordering on xenophobia I set out to overcome it, and fast.
An aromatic tropical grass-family herb lemongrass, or citronella root, is highly valued in Southeast Asia particularly in Vietnam and Thailand. It’s refreshing, stimulating and contributes a subtle, delicate citrus tone to a dish. The thin but sturdy stalk looks like a super-sized green onion or a miniature leek. Originating in India it is cultivated today in China, Brazil, Guatemala, Africa and Haiti. Its scent, without stating the obvious, reflects its name.
Most of the stalk is woody and fibrous. It is best to use only the moister bottom third. To do this lemongrass is often steeped in a hot liquid to release the flavors or it can be minced and used in marinades. The first time I used lemongrass I was confused as to where the bulb actually began. Here’s how I figured it out–as you look at the stalk you will see that the leaves begin to branch–this is where the bulb begins. Confidence begins to swell. Peel away the outer tough layer until you reach the tender core, it will be lavender or light purple in color. In dishes calling for minced lemongrass, you’ll chop up only the bottom four inches or so. The rest of the stalk can be used as skewers for grilled meats or split and cut into short pieces for infusing stocks or teas. Bruising the lemongrass with the side of a knife, will aid in releasing the fragrant, flavorful oils.
Most urban markets carry lemongrass in their specialty produce section. However, an often-suggested substitute is lemon zest with a bit of grated fresh ginger. Fresh lemongrass should be firm and pale to light green. Avoid stalks that are dried out at the top or yellow as this suggests that the whole stalk is not ideal. Fresh lemongrass can be stored in a plastic bag and frozen.
Other fascinating facts include the use, in Africa, of the matured root ends as toothbrushes. The root keeps the teeth white and offers a refreshing clean feeling. In homeopathic and aromatherapy circles it’s said to stimulate thinking and concentration so a few drops of essential oil on a tissue and a deep breath should help you out when you need to do some tedious office work such as filing or talking to the office slacker.
This herb has inspired me—there are so many uses for it. Naturally it is ideal for Thai and Vietnamese dishes but it can elevate other fixings such as this simple vinaigrette all the way from the exotics of Maine.
The Arrows Cookbook by Clark Frasier, and Mark Gaier
Makes about 2 cups
Excellent as a salad dressing but can be used as a marinade for scallops, shrimp, or chicken.
1 cup vegetable oil
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, yellow part only, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon chile paste
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
Finely grated zest and juice of 2 limes
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon fish sauce
Freshly grated black pepper
Warm 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium stainless steel saucepan over low heat. Add the shallots, lemongrass, and chile paste and cook, stirring until the shallots are translucent, about 5 minutes, do not brown.
Add the citrus zest and juice, sugar and fish sauce and simmer over low heat until the liquid is reduced by roughly one-third, about 10 minutes.
Whisk in the remaining ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons oil and season with salt and pepper. Use at once or cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.