Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Lemongrass

The first time I tried my hand at cooking with lemongrass was probably after my husband and I returned from our honeymoon in Thailand. We realized with dismay that a lot of the Thai food we had been eating here in the States paled in comparison to the food there, even in the most tourist-y areas. At the time – several years before the birth of our son – I had much more time on my hands for all-day cooking projects. So upon our return I worked my way through many Thai classics, including curries and marinades, stir-fries and grilled meats, shellfish and fish dishes, many of which featured lemongrass prominently. The flavor of the herb is incomparable; its assertive, lemony flavor reminds me not only of my honeymoon, but of days long since past (but hopefully to return again…someday), when I could wake up at a leisurely hour on a Saturday, trek to my favorite Thai market in Chinatown to pick up lemongrass, sticky rice and Thai basil and spend the rest of the day blissfully cooking.

A Brief History

The history of lemongrass is hard to come by (at least in English!), but reliable sourcesagree that the plant is native to Southeast Asia (probably Malaysia) and Southern India. According to the Sri Lankan Department of Export Agriculture, the first written text referring to lemongrass oil comes from the Philippines in the 17th Century. The plant was apparently introduced to Jamaica in 1799 and to both Haiti and the US in 1917. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Lemongrass oil is an effective mosquito, housefly and stable fly repellant.
  • Citral, a chemical derived from lemongrass, is used in perfumery (it smells lemony, natch) and in the synthesis of Vitamin A.
  • In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, lemongrass is called “fever grass.” It’s made into a tea that is said to combat fever and other cold/flu symptoms. 
  • A Malaysian adage says that one can find treasure beneath a lemongrass plant if one can find a lemongrass blossom. (Caveat: they rarely bloom!)

Cultivation

Lemongrass is in the Poaceae (true grass) family, in the Cymbopogon (lemongrass) genus. Three species are generally called “lemongrass,” but most commonly West Indian lemongrass C. citratus is used for culinary purposes as an herb (all three are also used to make lemongrass oil). Other species of Cymbopogon are grown to produce citronella and palmarosa oils, both used in herbal medicine and aromatherapy. The plant grows like a giant clump of grass, with beautiful green tops and white or red stems (technically “pseudo-stems”). Species of lemongrass now grow all over the tropical world, with production focused in Guatemala, India, China, Southeast Asia and parts of South America.

Lemongrass doesn’t grow easily from seed, but it is quite easy to grow from dividings or seedlings, even here in temperate Brooklyn. (It is not frost hardy, so in temperate areas it is usually grown as an annual.) However, it can be very hard to differentiate between lemongrass species if you’re trying to grow your own from seedlings – it is usually not culinary lemongrass most commonly sold in seedling form, but more commonly the citronella (oil-producing) varietals (don’t worry, you can still cook with them; they just aren’t as tasty). Generally, oil-producing lemongrass stems are reddish in color, while lemongrass best for cooking has white stems. I grow citronella-type lemongrass in my backyard to repel garden pests and in hopes of keeping feral cats away.

I went to an amazing talk recently about growing so-called “exotic” fruits and vegetables, and the teacher had a great tip about growing lemongrass: go to your favorite Thai, Vietnamese or other Asian market; pick the plumpest, most healthy stalk of lemongrass that still has a little bit of its root tip attached; plunk into a cup of water on your counter until roots just begin to form; plunk into the ground. You’re 100 percent guaranteed to grow the best kind of lemongrass for eating with this method. (I’ve even plunked a stalk of lemongrass directly in the ground without first sitting in a cup of water and have had success, although I don’t think this method works every time.)

Seasonality

Locally grown lemongrass is generally harvested in the fall, prior to the first frost. If you’re lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you should be able to find local lemongrass year-round.

Environmental Impact

Lemongrass tends to be grown on small farms with limited agricultural inputs used. It is a natural insect repellent, so generally the only pesticides used are herbicides, and usually in limited amounts. If you’re concerned about pesticide use, talk to your local farmer about his/her growing practices. (*And check out our Real Food rule of thumb.)

Characteristics

Not surprisingly, culinary lemongrass stalks with their leaves attached resemble grass, with long, thick, green leaves and yellow-white stems. The outer layers of the stalks are quite hard and tough. Lemongrass has a citrus flavor that is a bit more perfume-y than lemons, and without the acidity. It can be overpowering in dishes, so use judiciously. Fresh lemongrass is available at most large supermarkets now; otherwise, try your local Asian market to get your hands on the herb. Dried lemongrass is common, although isn’t as flavorful. Commercial lemongrass tea is also readily available.

What to look for

Look for lemongrass stalks that are fairly supple, ideally with a bit of the green leaves still attached in order to gauge freshness (the greener the better). Super dry stalks tend to mean the lemongrass is not very fresh; however, in a pinch they can be revived in water for a few minutes.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Like with most herbs, you’re not very likely to ingest more than a couple of tablespoons of lemongrass in one sitting, so in general its nutritional value is minimal. But to satisfy your intellectual curiosity: the herb is high in manganese, folate, potassium, iron and zinc, and even has some calcium.  

Lemongrass has some serious clout in natural medicine – and increasingly in the biomedical world as well. Its extract or oil is effective as both an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and is used to fight diarrhea. It is also used to combat malaria and has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels. It can also be used as a larvicide. And many of you probably have citronella candles or spray lying around your backyard to fight mosquitoes – the active ingredient in these products is also made from lemongrass.

What to Do with It

In general, only the inner core of the stalk is used in cooking. The root and leaf ends of the stalk are trimmed off, and the tough outer layers peeled away, revealing a tender core. This is then chopped, puréed or added whole to dishes.

Lemongrass is most closely associated with Southeast Asian cooking – especially Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Lao, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. In other countries, including parts of Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean, lemongrass is more commonly used as a medicinal tea. The herb’s perfume-y lemon-lime flavor meshes well with rice dishes, fish and shellfish, poultry (especially chicken), pork, beef and tofu. Whole, trimmed stalks can be tossed in soups, curries and rice dishes before cooking to perfume the entire dish. Lemongrass is also commonly blended with chiles and other seasonings (like fish sauce and ginger) to create a paste for marinating meats or as a flavor base for stir-fries. Trimmed stalks must be very finely sliced or chopped when added to dishes, as they can be quite fibrous.  

Cooking

Lemongrass has an assertive flavor that stands its own with the other strong flavors common in Southeast Asian cuisine, like fish sauce, ginger and galangal, chiles and coconut milk. It is one of the key ingredients in several Thai curry pastes, including red and green curry. (If you can, I encourage you to try your hand at making fresh Thai curry pastes from scratch at least once. The jarred/canned stuff is perfectly fine, but fresh-made Thai curry pastes have a depth of flavor that can’t be beat.) Southeast Asian cuisine frequently pairs lemongrass with shellfish (like crab, clams and mussels) and fish. 

The herb is also commonly used as a base for marinating meats for grilling – most famously in satay, a dish of skewered meat with origins Indonesia, but whose reach has spread all over Southeast Asia. (My favorite is Thai satay.) In Vietnamese cuisine, lemongrass is famously paired with chicken in ga xao sa ot (lemongrass chicken with chiles), grilled shrimp and beef with noodles.

As a bonus: lemongrass is a natural in desserts, where it pairs deliciously with dairy, as in this lemongrass-ginger ice cream, this lemongrass semifreddo and this lemongrass panna cotta.

Storage

Store fresh lemongrass in your fridge, loosely wrapped in just-damp paper towels, for a week to ten days.

Pro Tip

I’m totally obsessed with Thailand and Thai food, so I loved this super cute and informative Thai video about how to prepare lemongrass in multiple ways, depending on the recipe you’re making.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Lemongrass freezes beautifully. You can freeze whole stalks, trimmed of their leaves and root ends, by sticking on a cookie sheet and placing in the freezer until frozen solid, then transferring to freezer-proof zip-top bags. Freeze sliced lemongrass the same way. You can also make and freeze lemongrass paste by puréeing trimmed, sliced lemongrass in a blender with just a bit of water, pouring into ice cube trays and freezing until solid. Transfer your lemongrass cubes to a freezer-proof zip-top bag for long-term storage. You can also dry lemongrass to use in teas or in soups. Here’s a video that shows you how.  

Recipe

Spicy Lemongrass Salmon Cakes with Lemongrass Jasmine Rice

Fish cakes get kind of a bad rap in the culinary world – maybe for being too pedestrian or too old-school. But I admit that I love salmon cakes and I make them regularly for my family. The beauty of these cakes is a) they take just minutes to put together and cook and b) you can play with flavors so easily – swap out the lemongrass and lime juice/zest for lemon juice and zest, the Thai basil for Italian parsley or fennel fronds or dill, and you have a completely different, but just as delicious, dish. They are a great way to used leftover salmon, or I often use good quality canned salmon (I prefer Henry & Lisa’s brand canned wild Alaskan salmon). I like to top my salmon cakes with a squeeze of fresh citrus (lemon or lime) and sometimes chopped cherry tomatoes.

Note: the amount of breadcrumbs necessary will vary depending on how much moisture your salmon contains. Start with the amount in the recipe, then increase by a tablespoon at a time if your mixture is too wet.

For the Salmon Cakes:

Ingredients:
12 ounces cooked (or canned, drained) salmon fillet, skin removed
2 eggs, lightly beaten
23 cup dry breadcrumbs, plus more if necessary (see note above)
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
12 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon very finely minced shallot
1 small stalk lemongrass, root and leaf ends trimmed, outer leaves discarded, very finely minced
1 small Thai chile, finely chopped (optional)
4-5 large Thai (or regular) basil leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method:
1. In a medium bowl, lightly mash the salmon with a fork until it flakes apart.
2. Add the eggs, breadcrumbs, lime juice and zest, shallot, lemongrass and optional chile. Tear the basil leaves into small pieces and add to bowl. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
3. Stir gently with a fork to combine. The mixture should be just wet enough to hold together. (Try forming a cake – if it is too wet to hold together, add more breadcrumbs one tablespoon at a time.)
4. Form into 5-6 cakes, about 2 12 inches in diameter and 12 inch thick.
5. In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the salmon cakes and sauté on one side without moving until crispy and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip cakes and sauté on the other side, about 3 minutes more.
6. Remove from pan using a slotted spatula and place on a paper towel to drain. Serve immediately.

For the Lemongrass Jasmine Rice:

Ingredients:
2 cups jasmine rice
3 cups water
1 small stalk lemongrass, trimmed and tied in a knot (here’s a video that shows you how)

Method:
1. Wash the rice in several changes of cold water until the water mostly runs clear.
2. Add the rice and the water to a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat.
3. Once boiling, turn the heat to low, add the lemongrass knot, and cover the pot. Cook the rice for 18-19 minutes. Remove lemongrass knot before serving.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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