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Aug
17
Nancie's Lemongrass Chicken, made with chicken thighs, shallots, garlic, fresh lemongrass and a small splash of coarsely ground dried red chilies

Nancie's Lemongrass Chicken, made with chicken thighs, shallots, garlic, fresh lemongrass and a small splash of coarsely ground dried red chilies

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:

A good bunch of fresh lemongrass from Whole Foods in Chapel Hill, NC

A good bunch of fresh lemongrass from Whole Foods in Chapel Hill, NC

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, here’s how to start:

* 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 change the water every couple of days.

* Check back here in a few days and I’ll show you the next steps.

Buy plenty, so you can cook with some of it as well as put in a good supply of stalks to root. Here’s my version of a marvelous 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, along with 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.

Note:

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).

About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. The Duo Dishes Reply

    Lemongrass is so sweet and fragrant. Definitely intoxicating. We have a number of Thai and pan-Asian markets here in LA that sell it fresh and also frozen (already chopped/grated) in big blocks or plastic tubs! So useful. Great recipe for lemongrass.

  2. Today's Recipes Reply

    Great recipe thanks for sharing

  3. Christine Reply

    Hi Nancy, so happy to read that we are not like those aromatic herbs and improving with time! 🙂 your home grown lemon grass is splendid. I coild not even keep my basil plant this year..what’ s happening to me …really improving?

  4. Sally Reply

    These are great instructions! I am definitely going to try growing lemongrass next year…..have you had any luck bringing it indoors in the winter? maybe it would keep for a month or so in the pot? I’ve done it with rosemary plants, but they never quite make it through the winter. Confession: I have never gotten the hang of Asian cooking but love the flavors of Vietnam, and you have enough recipes already on this blog for me to get started! Thanks Nancie.

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      My pleasure, Sally — love to be either a ‘411’ or a ‘911’ for your Asian cooking escapades. I’ve been able to bring lemongrass inside but recommend small pots, more for pleasure than for extensive cooking. It loves lots of sun and warmth, so while it can survive, it’s harder to manage a big cookable supply than you can have growing outside. And for starting out in early spring, I like rooting a brand new batch each year, which grows really quickly and gives you a summerlong ‘patch’ to work with.

  5. Chef Sherlock Reply

    I love Vietnam and never dreamed I’d be able to grow my own lemongrass in North America. You’ve inspired me! Can’t wait for the winter to come and go so that I can put your advice to use. Consider this post bookmarked!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      You sure can, and it will be beautiful to look at and very flavorful. Keep me posted on how your lemongrass garden grows, down the line.

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