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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

All about Lemongrass

I remember the very first time I tasted lemongrass. It was in Tom Ka Gai soup. A classic Thai soup it is creamy and tangy at the same time. The creaminess comes from coconut milk and the tang comes from lemongrass. It's a very common ingredient in both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Sometimes you find stalks of it in soup like I did in the Tom Ka Gai.

Lemongrass is such a perfect name for an herb that is lemony and herbal. It's the essential oil citral that gives the lemon flavor and is also known as citronella root. I've read that it actually comes from Sri Lanka. You can buy dried lemongrass, chopped lemongrass but the fresh stalks are really best. One reader asked what are the advantages to using lemongrass rather than lemon? Lemongrass has a lovely herbal quality. It's also milder and more nuanced than lemon. It has no acidity so you can use it in marinades and sauces to give flavor.

I have to admit I hadn't experimented with fresh lemongrass until I discovered a recipe for gravlax over at In Praise of Sardines When I saw bunches of lemongrass for only 50 cents at the Alemany Farmer's Market I knew it was time to give it a try. The gravlax turned out wonderfully. I highly recommend trying this unusual dill-free version.

In my experiments with lemongrass in the past week or so this is what I have learned: First of all only the very tender center of the stalks near the base are edible, the rest of the stalk is very tough, though flavorful. You need to either heat or really smack the heck out of it to get at the flavor. Even if you slice it thinly for a marinade or a rub, it's good to pound it up a bit. You'll need a very sharp and somewhat heavy knife to cut it up. The stalks can be simmered to make or flavor a broth for soup or steaming fish.

A couple of easy ways to use lemongrass are to make lemongrass oil or lemongrass simple syrup. I especially love the oil. I have a tiny bottle of lemon-scented olive oil and have found it makes the perfect finishing touch to risotto or seafood. I think the lemongrass oil would be great for finishing dishes, but also to use in stir frying.

Lemongrass Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 stalk of lemongrass

Simmer the sugar and water until the solution is clear. Add a whole stalk of lemongrass that you have bashed up to release the flavor. Cook it for at least five minutes. Drain and cool. Store in the refrigerator. Use the syrup to sweeten ice tea or in lemonade, in cocktails, to candy fruit slices, to make sorbet, to drizzle over cake...

Lemongrass oil

1 cup light flavored oil, rice bran or canola oil work well
1 stalk lemongrass chopped finely
optional: a slice of ginger

Heat the oil and lemongrass allowing it to simmer 2-3 minutes. Add the ginger if desired. Let steep overnight then strain out the lemongrass. Store at room temperature. Drizzle the oil on risotto or other rice dishes, use it to stir fry, in marinades, vinaigrettes and sauces.