Whenever I chop lemongrass, I always enjoy its gentle, lemony fragrance. Sometimes I’ll even chew on a piece, delighting in its citrusy, slightly gingery flavor. So when my husband, Trong, came up with Lemon Grass as the name for our restaurant, I was ecstatic. Not only do I love lemongrass, but the herb’s bright flavor exemplifies the fresh, vibrant character of Southeast Asian cuisine.
Lemony, yes, but not that assertive
In its tropical home of Southeast Asia, lemongrass grows in bushes, thriving happily wherever the sun is hot and the water ample. While the leaves of the long, slender plant aren’t particularly eye-catching, the stalk, which looks like a large, woody scallion, possesses a complexity of flavors that isn’t easy to put into words. Some describe it as citrusy, perhaps a little gingery. Its lemon flavor isn’t nearly as overt as lemon juice or zest; it’s more delicate, with a slight floral flavor that gives a dish a refreshing, lingering lift.
In Thailand, sliced lemongrass is tossed into a popular salad of minced chicken and mint. Thai curries, often laced with fiery chiles, are perfumed with soothing lemongrass. In Vietnam, it’s often used in marinades, where it not only adds flavor but creates a wonderful crust as well.
Buy firm lemongrass with a fat bulb
As Thai cooking becomes more popular here, the herb becomes easier to find. You can now find it in many grocery stores, as well as in Asian markets.
Fresh lemongrass is firm, pale to medium green, with a whitish-pinkish bulb. The stalks are usually trimmed to about 12 to 18 inches, and they’re sometimes bundled. Avoid stalks that are dry and yellow— that’s a signal that they’re old and have lost moisture, flavor, and fragrance.
Lemongrass keeps for weeks wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. If you know that you won’t be using it within a couple of weeks, store it in a plastic bag in the freezer, where it will keep for months with just a slight loss of flavor. For easier handling, cut it into 1- to 2-inch pieces or chop it before freezing.
Packaged, frozen lemongrass is an acceptable substitute for fresh, but dried or powdered versions have no resemblance to the real thing.
Bruise the stalk for optimum flavor
Lemongrass is handled in different ways depending on how it’s being used.
To infuse broths, teas, and stews, first bruise the stalk lightly. Crush the stalk with the side of a knife to release the aromatic oils; then cut it into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Add the pieces at the start of cooking so that their fragrance gains intensity as they simmer. Most recipes suggest removing the pieces before serving, but I generally leave them in. They’re visually interesting, and you might enjoy chewing on some for a more lasting lemongrass effect.
To use in marinades, stir-fries, and salads, finely chop the stalk. This way, the lemongrass can be eaten as part of the dish. Use the bottom whitish part of the stalk, including the bulb; save the more fibrous tops for infusing. To make chopping easier, slice the stalk into very thin rounds first and then finely chop them. If you’re chopping a lot of lemongrass, you may want to use a food processor. Either way, remove any long fibers that have resisted the blade.
Lemongrass takes on a different note depending on how it’s used and on when it’s added to a dish. For a stir-fry with a strong lemongrass flavor, create an aromatic base by lightly browning garlic and minced lemongrass in oil. For a stir-fry with a refreshing lift that doesn’t overwhelm other flavors, add the herb at the end of stir-frying. For salads, add finely chopped lemongrass to a dressing if you want a more uniformly flavored dish. Otherwise, add it directly to the salad just before tossing. I prefer the latter because I like the surprise of biting into a piece of lemongrass here and there. To my mind, this kind of random but intense experience is more lively and memorable.