It may look and sound like a weed, but lemongrass actually is one of the most important ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking.
It also happens to have the power to transform the all-American foods you love.
Lemongrass 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, lemongrass has a pleasantly assertive lemon taste and aroma. It 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 them. 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 peel away and discard the tough outer layers. Slice the lemongrass crosswise very thin, then add to soups, stews, sautés and stir-fries. No need to fish it out.
Lemongrass pairs best with meat and seafood, as well as other signature flavors of Southeast Asia, including ginger and coconut milk. It 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.
Lemongrass Chicken Stir-fry
Two 4-inch pieces lemongrass, lightly crushed with a meat mallet or rolling pin
1/4 cup canola oil, plus 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dry ginger
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks
3 cups broccoli florets
2 red bell peppers, cored and cut into strips
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup cool water
Rice or egg noodles, to serve
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the lemongrass, 1/4 cup of the canola oil and the 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 lemongrass 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 lemongrass 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 another 2 minutes. Return the vegetables to the pan and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over rice or noodles.
Yield: 4 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 440 calories, 210 grams fat (48 percent fat calories), 42 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate, 100 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams dietary fiber, 610 milligrams sodium.