Fresh lemongrass was once an extra-trip Asian ingredient, available only in Asian markets which catered to a Southeast Asian community of cooks. These days, it’s more widely available around the USA in many supermarkets and farmer’s markets. Here in North Carolina, several local grocery stores carry it yearround, usually imported from Mexico or brought up from Florida. It’s good, though it tends be large, and on the dry side. Lemongrass as grown in a home cook’s garden, or sold in the fresh markets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, would be a brighter green in color, with a smaller bulb.
But what’s widely available here will work fine, as long as the stalks have a firm and sturdy bulbous base. Look for strong purple color in the concentric rings you’ll see when you cut a stalk crosswise near the base. Purple means flavor and color. If you see it, you’ve got good stalks, useable in cooking and in rooting lemongrass for your own garden. Here’s my latest lemongrass purchase:
Note the bulbous base, with a small, diminishing dried portion below the baseline. That’s good: some supermarkets sell lemongrass which has been trimmed right up past the rounded base, exposing the concentric rings inside the stalks. This is useless stuff; let the produce manager know that it’s not what you need. You can keep lemongrass unwrapped in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days, and on the counter for a day or two. Best to use it sooner rather than later, because unlike you and me, it doesn’t improve with age.
Growing lemongrass at home is a great pleasure; I’ve been doing it for many years, after a Vietnamese friend showed me how back when we lived in Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego. There it thrived year-round; here in North Carolina, I grow it from early spring through hard frost. This is the big pot I have growing on the deck at our house, starting with stalks I rooted in early June.
If you’d like to grow lemongrass, go buy yourself a good big bunch like what I’ve shown above in this post. Trim each stalk down to about a 6-inch long piece, cutting off the grassy tops and keeping the bulbed base with the root end. Stick the trimmed stalks in water, put them in a sunny place, and then check back here in a few days. I’ll walk you through it, and you will be delighted with how simple it is to get lemongrass going at home.
Buy plenty, so you can cook with some of it. Here’s my version of a Vietnamese dish which puts fresh lemongrass to delicious use. It’s called ga xao xa ot, and it’s the perfect companion to rice or noodles and a simple salad or stir-fried greens.
Nancie’s Lemongrass Chicken
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 chopped fresh lemongrass (about 3 stalks, see Note)
1/4 cup chopped shallots or onion
1/3 cup chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon crushed dried red chili flakes
3 tablespoons chopped green onions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, and garlic, and stir to mix everything well. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes (or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day).In a small bowl, combine the Asian fish sauce, sugar, and salt, and stir well. In a blender or a small food processor, combine the lemongrass, shallots, and chicken broth or water. Blend to a fairly smooth puree, stopping to scrape down the sides and grind up any signifgant chunks of lemongrass.
Heat a large, deep skillet or a wok over high heat until very hot. Add oil and swirl to coat the pan. When a bit of green onion sizzles at once, scatter in the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Let it cook for about 1 minute, until browned on one side and fragrant. Toss well and let cook until browned, about 1 minute more.
Add the lemongrass puree and toss well. Add the fish sauce mixture, toss well, and then cook, tossing occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. Add the chili flakes and the green onions and toss well. Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve hot or warm. Serves 4 with rice and another vegetable dish or salad.
To prepare lemongrass, trim away the woody bottom end of 3 lemongrass stalks, to make a smooth base just under the bulge of the bulb. Cut away the grass top portion, leaving a base about three inches long. Halve each stalk lengthwise, and then cut them crosswise into thin pieces. Tumble the bits together, and then remove and discard any pieces which don’t have a purple tinge. (Purple color = flavor and aroma in lemongrass). You’ll need about 1/4 cup.
This recipe comes from Quick and Easy Vietnamese: 70 Everyday Recipes, by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2006).