Lemon Grass: Kitchen Basics

Lemon grass slicedFor a distinct lemony flavor and fragrance, place two lemon grass stalks inside the cavity or underneath a fish or chicken and steam. To make the flavor and fragrance more potent, bruise or pound the stems with a pestle before steaming.

Lemon grass has the floral aroma of lemon and lime peel and fresh-cut grass. One stalk will impart a rich aroma to a quart of stock.

For a healthful tisane or herbal tea, bruise the top of two lemon grass stalks, combine with a quart of water, bring to a simmer, remove from heat and cover for 15 minutes before straining and reheating or chilling and serving.

Only the tender part of the bottom third–a tightly packed bulb–of the lemon grass is edible. This part can be sliced or pounded after the tough outer leaves or layers are removed. Once the fibrous inner stem is finely, finely sliced, you can add it raw to salads. Bruised or pounded any part of the stem can be added to the cooking pan to release its fragrance.

The stalks of lemon grass are what you will most certainly find at the farm market. The top part of the lemon grass–coarse, broad and sometimes sharply edged leaves–are most often trimmed away and discarded since they are inedible.

Lemon grass is a member of the grass family that grows to nearly 3 feet (80 cm) tall. The stalks are yellowish-gray-green and look a bit like beach grass. The lower 8 inches of the stalks resemble a miniature leek, a tightly packed, cream-colored bulb.

Choose. Select stems that are full, green and not wilted or bruised. The bulb ends should be firm. Trim away the leaves and keep the bottom 6 to 12 or so inches.

Store. Lemon grass will keep in the refrigerator, wrapped in foil or plastic for 2 weeks. If you plan to use the stems soon, you can stand them upright in a glass of water. Sliced lemon grass can be kept in a plastic bag in the freezer.

Prepare. Use only the tender part of the lower bulb portion of lemon grass. Peel the tough leaves or layers away to get to the tender part of the inner core. This part can be finely sliced crosswise like a scallion and added raw to salads or soups. The outer layer and upper portion of the stems are stringy and not edible, but can be used to flavor stocks, sauces, soups, stews, fish, poultry and herbal tea; discard after use. Pound the leaves just before cooking to release the volatile oils.

Serve. Lemon grass most flavorful fresh rather than dry. It is most popular in Southeast Asian cookery. Use it to season soups, vegetables, curries, poultry, shellfish, fish and marinades. Use lemongrass to make herbal teas.

• For a lemon grass seasoning paste for marinating fish, chicken or pork: cut a lemon grass bulb and stem into 1-inch pieces and combine with a piece of fresh ginger peeled and cut up, 3 medium garlic cloves sliced, 2 medium shallots sliced, 1 or 2 medium chili peppers seeded and diced (choose pepper varieties according to your tolerance and taste), 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro stems, and salt to taste, combine these and chop fine in a processor or blender, add 2 tablespoons of corn oil and purée. Pour into container and seal with 3 additional tablespoons of corn oil, cover and refrigerate.

Flavor partners. Match lemon grass with ginger, chile, coconut, garlic, shallots, and green peppers.

Nutrition. Lemon grass contains geraniol and citral which give it its lemony flavor and fragrance.

Lemon grass facts and trivia. Lemon grass is native to Southeast Asia, probably Malaysia but can be grown wherever the climate remains moderately warm year-round. A stalk of freshly cut lemon grass will root in water and grow on in a sunny garden location with regular water. Lemon grass is a perennial herb.

Lemon grass is sometimes called “fever grass”, so named for its use in treating malaria in western Africa and Southeast Asia.

The botanical name Cymbopogon citrates.