A VERSATILE EXOTIC INGREDIENT TO ADD TO YOUR NEXT SOUP, STEW OR CURRY.
Lemongrass is a citric flavoured herb native to warm, temperate and tropical regions. It is used largely in Thai and South East Asian cooking. Known as citronella or sereh this interesting ingredient grows in dense clumps and is then cut up to form the more familiar spring onion like fresh lemongrass you find in markets. Almost always the one edible one found in markets is Cymbopogon Citratus (known as West Indian Lemongrass) but there are around 55 species worldwide so you might come across the few of these that are always edible.
It is characterized but its swollen base which is far more tender than its woodier stalks. It can grow to a height of 3ft (1m) with a spread of around the same amount.
THE FLAVOUR PROFILE
Its unique fragrance often signals that lemongrass has been added to a dish. It can be described as having a lemon to sweet flavour profile that combines very well with a wide range of other ingredients. Lemongrass can range from absolutely flavourless to vibrant and fragrant. A lot depends on the climate where it is grown.
CHEMISTRY OF LEMONGRASS
Lemongrass contains 65-85% citral (also known as lemonal) and myrcene. Other compounds include citronellol, methyl heptenone, dipentene, geraniol, limonene, geranyl acetate and nerol. It citrus flavour profile comes primarily from its high citral content.
GETTING IT READY TO EAT
The bottom/root of lemongrass is extremely dry and difficult to use other than when thrown into soup. Even then it is best to cut it off to allow more flavour to be released from the swollen base. Dried out exterior leaves should be discarded in much the same way as peeling away the outer leaves of a leek or onion.
Often lemongrass won’t be available in your market or area. Freeze dried alternatives can be very useful if this is the case. Just remember to the top third and prioritize the 7-8cm ‘tender’ section from the swollen bulb upwards.
Fresh lemongrass stalks should feel firm and heavy. Lightness is a sign that it has begun the process of drying out and thus offers a weaker flavour profile. Technically lemongrass is available all year round but that largely depends where you live and the level of demand in your region.
KEEPING IT FRESH?
Lemongrass can keep for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator if stored in a very well sealed plastic bag. We recommend to use it before though or it can turn into an unappetizing almost flavourless waste of time.
HOW DO WE USE IT?
Lemongrass is usually added whole and then removed once the cooking process is over. This avoids the unpleasant event of biting into a dried up cardboard strip of a thoroughly cooked lemongrass stalk.
If you prefer it can be crushed in a pestle and mortar then used. This is fine, but by doing this a lot of the essential oils will be released and ultimately get lost before the lemongrass actually makes it into the pot.
We recommend the crushed garlic strategy if you want the flavour to penetrate into a soup, stew or curry. Bash it a bit with the handle of a knife and throw it right in.
On the other hand some like to taste it much the same way as ginger can be cut up into small pieces and actually ends up relatively edible and pleasurable if a young ginger root was used. This rule applies to lemongrass too. If it is tender it can be eaten as long as its cut into very small bitesize pieces. All the other dry woody remains should be reserved for imparting a bit of flavour to something else (or into the rubbish bin).
THE PURIST APPROACH
If you are looking for more traditional ways to use lemongrass look no further than South East Asian cooking – specifically Thai. Added to stews and curries can really add another level of flavour to an otherwise bland dish. In Asian cuisine it is usually used alongside bold ingredients and often numerous in number.
Tom Yum soup relies on a healthy amount of lemongrass added to it. It really is an essential ingredient in this world famous Thai origin dish. The soup is made of fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves (another excellent citrus flavour ingredient), galangal (relative of the ginger), lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed chili peppers. Tom yum is usually has prawns, fish, chicken or mushrooms added but can also compromise of a whole range of other ingredients depending on the cooks preference.
When sliced very thinly lemongrass can be added to stir fries as well as a garnish in salads.
Lemongrass is added as a fragrance enhancement to Lechon, the delicious fatty and addictive Filipino national dish.
In parts of Africa, India and Mexico it is used to infuse with tea. A great example of this is the Chukku Kappi tea in Kerala, India.
Used as a flavouring for crème brulee can really create something surprising and unexpected. The combination with the traditional caramelized flavour profile, the citrus sweetness gives it a kick.
Add to a bottle of vodka and allowed to infuse for several days. Rather than creating a sharp overly citrus result, the product is smooth, subtle and unique.
FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS
Lemongrass goes really with proteins like pork, chicken and beef. It goes really well with seafood and fish in particular prawns. Root vegetables like ginger, galangal and jicama complement lemongrass. Pungent and spicy flavours like fish sauce, chili pepper, mustard and soy sauce combine with lemongrass much the same way these flavours do with other citrus fruits. A special mention should go to coconut milk that tastes incredible with a tender lemongrass left to infuse in it.
- Use fresh lemongrass as soon as possible. Its flavour profile will diminish the longer you leave it.
- Don’t rely on what a recipe tells you. Often a supposedly flavourful lemongrass will not give the desired kick. Keep tasting the dish and add more if you are not happy with the intensity.
- Never leave a large lemongrass stalk in a dish when serving. It’s the same as leaving a turmeric root, cinnamon stick, bay leaf or cardamom pods. Just don’t do it. Once they have had all their flavour extracted what’s left is just not edible.