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A&E >  Food

Seasonal Kitchen: Spirit-lifting lemongrass lightens and brightens

Sylvia Fountaine

In the midst of winter, lemongrass uplifts the spirit and awakens the palate. Its grassy, lemony flavor and citrusy aroma is like pure sunshine – invigorating and energizing.

Most commonly found in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, it infuses soups, curries, marinades and stir-fries with its healing goodness. In the kitchen, lemongrass adds a lovely lightness and brightness to dishes which, let’s face it, we all could use this time of year.

The light green, fragrant, ornamental grass, also known as cymbopogon citratus, grows in large dense clumps in India, Southeast Asia and Australia. A tropical plant, it thrives in warm, humid, sunny climates with sandy soil. So, no, it’s not from around these parts, but it’s still very much worth getting to know.

Jeremy Hansen, chef and owner of the new Inland Pacific Kitchen in downtown Spokane, remembers the first time he tasted lemongrass: “It was in Portland, Oregon, at a Thai restaurant, where I tried a soup called tom kha gai. The very next day I started cooking with it. I really didn’t know what to do with it except use it like a tea and steep it, but I soon figured out that you had to smash it or break it apart to release all its volatile oils for maximum flavor.”

Now, Hansen loves incorporating lemongrass in dishes.

“Lemongrass brings a sweet citron fragrance to a dish without an overwhelming essence,” he said. “I like to dehydrate it and blend it into a powder so that I can use it as a seasoning agent to garnish a dish or add it to a spice blend for a rub or a sauce.”

Plus, “Drying it gives it a long shelf life, and you don’t need to use much to extract a good flavor. This way it’s easy to work with and has many uses.”

But the simplest way to incorporate this healing grass into our everyday day lives is to simply make a tea out of it. Pour hot water over fresh lemongrass stalks that have been smashed, let steep for 10 minutes, strain and drink.

Lemongrass is an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C. It’s also high in minerals: potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, zinc and iron. It contains powerful antioxidants, flavonoids and phenolic compounds – all of which help aid the body in healing itself.

Try incorporating lemongrass into what you are already making. In your next batch of chicken noodle soup, add a few tablespoons of finely chopped lemongrass, taking care to use only the white tender parts, along with a few slices of ginger. Serve it with a lime wedge and fresh jalapeño slices, turning it into Thai-style Chicken Noodle Soup. Or, add some fresh chopped lemongrass to your next batch of chicken or turkey meatballs for a little punch.

No matter how you use it, remember to inhale. Its aroma is nothing short of therapeutic.

Lemongrass Curry with Prawns

From Jeremy Hansen of Inland Pacific Kitchen

For the sauce

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1/4 cup fresh galangal, chopped (see note)

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

1 cup lemongrass, chopped

Pinch ground clove

Pinch ground green cardamom

Pinch ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 cup dry white wine

Salt and fish sauce, to taste

For prawns

1 cup sauce

3-4 cups chicken stock or water

12 ounces prawns

4 cups jasmine rice, cooked

For the sauce: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add galangal, ginger, onion, garlic, and lemongrass and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Add spices. Then, add wine and simmer on low with lid to cook all ingredients until soft. Take off heat and let rest 20 minutes to cool a bit. Purée mixture in blender until smooth, adding a touch of water, if needed. Season with salt and fish sauce, as desired.

For the prawns: Mix curry sauce and stock in a large saute pan and gently poach the prawns in the sauce over medium-low heat. Remove and set aside the prawns, and gently reduce curry to its thicker consistency

To serve: Divide rice into four 1-cup servings. Divide prawns evenly among each bowl. Pour curry sauce over top.

Yield: 4 servings

Note: Galangal root resembles ginger, but tastes more like pepper. It’s commonly used in Southeast Asian dishes and is available at Asian grocery stores.

Poached Cod in Lemongrass Broth Over Baby Spinach

6-8 ounces true cod (or substitute black cod, halibut or sea bass)

2 teaspoons coconut oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, rough chopped

3 tablespoons very finely chopped lemongrass, smash first, then chop

1 teaspoon ginger, minced

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons fish sauce

1/3- 1/2 cup coconut milk

Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime (start with a half of a lime, taste, add more if you like)

5 ounces baby spinach

Optional additions: shiitake mushrooms, radish, Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, crispy shallots. Add kefir lime leaves or galangal to the broth for extra flavor.

Cut fish into 2 pieces. Season with a little salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat oil in a medium-large sauce pan or pot over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, ginger and lemongrass. Sauté, stirring often, until fragrant and golden, about 4 minutes. Add water, salt and fish sauce. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes to allow flavor to develop. Add coconut milk (both solids and water), and a generous squeeze of lime. (You could make this ahead and refrigerate at this point.)

Gently, place fish in the simmering broth, spooning the fragrant liquid over the fish. Simmer for about 3 minutes taking care not to overcook.

Place a generous mound of baby spinach in two bowls. Carefully lift out the fish from the broth and place over the bed of spinach. Using a ladle, divide the broth between the two bowls. Top with shredded or sliced radish, sliced jalapeño or red chilies for heat.

Note: Do no cook chilies in the broth. It will get too spicy. Simply add them to individual bowls at the end. Shallot (versus onion) gives this dish the best flavor.

Yield: 2 servings

Vietnamese Lemongrass Vermicelli Bowl with Nuoc Cham

For the bowl

1 1/2 pounds chicken (or tofu, patted dry)

1/2 cup finely chopped lemongrass (3 stalks, white part only)

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 minced garlic cloves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground Chinese five spice

1/4 cup oil

8 ounces vermicelli rice noodles, cooked or soaked according to package directions

1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips

1 English cucumber, halved and sliced

1 daikon radish, grated or cut into matchsticks

Generous handful of fresh basil or mint leaves

For the dressing

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon fish sauce (or make a similar vegan sauce; see below)

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon sugar (or honey)

1 red chili, medium spicy

Make the marinade: Cut chicken or tofu into small bite-size pieces. Mix the marinade ingredients (lemongrass through oil) together in a medium bowl and add chicken or tofu, gently coating all. Let marinate 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Boil noodles (read package directions; they normally boil for 2-3 minutes). Drain, rinse with cold water. Or, if you prefer your noodles warm, rinse with hot water.

Make the dressing: Mix lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar and a few sliced chilies in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat a heavy bottom skillet over medium heat on the stove, add chicken or tofu, cook until browned and cooked through (or use a grill pan, or outdoor grill). Place in a warm oven until ready to use.

Assemble bowls: Place noodles, veggies, fresh herbs, grilled chicken or tofu, grouped together in bowl. Spoon a little dressing over the noodles and veggies.

Yield: 4 servings

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home.

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