Citronella.

From M., 26 May 2010, lemongrass – what the hell am I supposed to do with this?

Q: I recently bought some lemongrass but I did not know how to cook it, I was aiming for an asian style dipping sauce, but with no luck.

A: Thanks for your question. Lemongrass is an important component of Southeast Asian cuisine, as the grass – which grows in long clusters of tightly-wrapped leaves – is native to the region. Its flavor is complex, sharing similarities with citrus fruits due to the lemony aromatic compound called citral, with roses due to geraniol, and with other spicy-smelling flowers due to linalool. All over Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, it is pounded into pastes, sauteed, and infused into broths. It is an essential element of Thai and Lao curries, and lends grilled Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes their characteristic aroma.

To the uninitiated, though, lemongrass is a mystifying ingredient. Hard, fibrous, and woody, it can be difficult to figure out how to incorporate into food. To extract the most flavor from lemongrass, I like to bruise it by beating it against a hard surface – the counter, a table, whatever – before slicing it up with a very sharp and preferably heavy knife. For pastes, marinades, and any other application in which the lemongrass needs to be minced or ground, use the bulbous lower portion of the stalk, removing the driest outer layers. Basically, if it looks fresh and moist, and smells aromatic, it’s suitable. Use the light yellow section and avoid the green portion for minced applications. Drier, tougher, and green portions can be infused into broths or stocks.

Once you’ve minced it up, use it to make a Vietnamese-style marinade for grilled meat. Because it’s so floral, lemongrass needs other flavors – salt, sugar, aromatics like garlic or onion, chiles, pungent fish sauce for balance. A short stay in this marinade before grilling, and any protein will taste delicious.

I’m not a big fan of incorporating pieces of lemongrass into a dipping sauce or any kind of sauce – there’s no getting around its fibrous, woody qualities, even with a really good food processor or blender, and I believe that even chunky sauces should be fairly soft-textured. To make a really good lemongrass sauce, I prefer to infuse the flavor of lemongrass into the sauce before straining. I’ve provided a recipe for two sauces below – one a dipping sauce that is not strained, and the other an infused sauce to drizzle on grilled or roasted meat or fish.

Lemongrass marinade for grilled meat

This is good with everything, Serve the grilled meat or seafood with steamed jasmine rice, or rice vermicelli, and a salad of thinly sliced pickled daikon and carrot.

2 stalks lemongrass, bulbs only, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1/2 small onion, minced
2 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
4 tbsp fish sauce (nuoc mam), preferably Vietnamese
4 tbsp vegetable oil

One chicken, wing tips removed, cut into serving pieces OR sliced pork belly OR thinly sliced beef skirt steak OR large shrimp, peeled and deveined
lime wedges
mint leaves
crushed roasted peanuts

If you have a mortar/pestle, pound the lemongrass well until it is as smooth as you can get it. The pounded lemongrass will still be a bit fibrous. Combine with the other ingredients, other than the oil, and mix well. Stir in the oil at the end. If you don’t have a mortar/pestle, combine everything in a blender or food processor and process until as smooth as possible.

Marinate the protein for about 30 minutes to several hours (not more than 30 minutes for fish or shellfish). Skewer shrimp, if using. Prepare a grill with coals, or set a grill pan over medium-high heat. When hot, grill the protein.

Grilled chicken.

Garnish with crushed peanuts, and serve with lime wedges and mint.

Pickled carrot and herb accompaniment.

Lemongrass dipping sauce

Like I said, I don’t love lemongrass dipping sauces when you haven’t strained out the lemongrass’s woody bits. So for this sauce, make sure you really mince it up as finely as you can, and then pound the bejesus out of it with a mortar and pestle. You’ll probably still find some fibers when you dip, but if you pound it really well, they’ll be small and fine.

1 small shallot or 1/4 small onion, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, bulbs only, minced
1 1-inch segment ginger, minced
2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 2 limes
2 tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 tsp sambal oelek or another chile-garlic sauce

If you have a mortar/pestle, pound the lemongrass well until it is as smooth as you can get it. The pounded lemongrass will still be a bit fibrous. Combine with the other ingredients and bring to a simmer for about ten minutes. Cool and serve with grilled meats, spring rolls, and the like. Store excess in the refrigerator.

Lemongrass-coconut sauce

This sauce reminds me of a dish I once enjoyed at a Cambodian restaurant in Berkeley called Cambodiana. As I recall, the restaurant wasn’t that amazing, except for these lamb chops that really showcased the French influence on Cambodia. The chops were marinated in a lemongrass-galangal paste, grilled to a perfect medium rare, and finished with a sort of curry-scented butter.

This sauce is a perfect finish to lamb chops or grilled beef. As a rich sauce, it complements a firm white fish as well, like halibut.

2 shallots, minced
2 stalks lemongrass, bulbs only, minced
2 cloves garlic confit
1 2-inch segment ginger, julienned
1 tsp fish sauce
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp grated fresh turmeric root or 1 tsp ground dried turmeric
2/3 c Riesling or Viognier, dry
1/2 c light (not roasted, preferably Asian) chicken stock [Asian chicken stock involves simmering bones with ginger, onion, garlic, scallion, no mirepoix or traditional herbs like thyme]
2/3 c coconut milk
2 tbsp unsalted butter, divided into 4 chunks
salt and white pepper

Place the shallots, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, and half the wine in a small pan on the stove, and bring to a simmer; reduce to au sec (until the wine has reduced almost to a sticky glaze on the bottom of the pan – do not burn). Given the volume of wine this may take about 20 minutes. Add the rest of the wine and reduce again to au sec.

Add the stock, turmeric, bay leaf; simmer until reduced by 3/4. This will take at least 20 minutes. Strain through a chinois. Discard solids.

Return to a clean small pan and bring back to a simmer, stirring well. Add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Reduce by 1/3. Remove from heat and add the cold chunks of butter, swirling the pan to incorporate and taking care that the butter does not separate. Set aside off heat. Season with salt and white pepper.

4 thoughts on “Citronella.

  1. Pingback: Good evening, Vietnam. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Love the lemongrass. You are correct doesn’t work well in dips. Here is an idea. Give it a couple of wacks infuse into dipping sauce, then strain.

  3. If you love lemongrass (and I do) it’s cheaper to grow your own. Supermarket lemongrass is usually sold with some root attached. Water and patience will the roots grow. Mine has been going for 8 years – indoor in winter outdoor in summer.

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