Growing lemon grass

In Season

May 31, 2006|By ROBIN MATHER JENKINS | ROBIN MATHER JENKINS,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

One of the signature flavors in Thai and Vietnamese dishes, lemon grass has a light, citrusy, floral scent that may seem immediately familiar. That's because the plant it comes from also gives us citronella, the scented oil that is said to repel mosquitoes.

It's easy to grow lemon grass, starting with purchased stalks. "Choose the freshest, plumpest-looking stalks at the store," says yougrowgirl.com, a gardening Web site.

Put the stalks into a jar of water and place near a sunny window. When small roots have grown an inch or two, pot into rich soil and keep "damp like a moist sponge." Grow it outside in the summer, but bring it in when temperatures drop in the fall.

In Thailand, lemon grass is used like smelling salts and thought to be good for headaches, writes Vatcharin Bhumichitr in The Essential Thai Cookbook (1994). Rich in vitamin A, lemon grass also is used in perfume and in lemon grass tea, which he says is "a good remedy for lack of appetite, fever and gallstones."

Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune. Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin contributed to this story.

Some stalk reality

Buying

For growing or cooking, avoid dried-out stalks. Lemon grass also is available dried and frozen, but fresh provides the best flavor. ("Dried lemon grass," says Corinne Trang in the new book The Asian Grill, "is just about flavorless.") You'll find the long stalks and prepackaged shorter lengths in many markets.

Storing Store in the refrigerator. Try wrapping lemon grass in a moist paper towel or standing the stalks in a glass with a little water to see if they last longer. Some people say it helps, others say it's not worth the trouble.

To freeze lemon grass, wrap individual stalks in aluminum foil without washing them first, Trang says. Fine rings of lemon grass can be frozen and stored almost indefinitely, with no need for thawing before use, says writer Vatcharin Bhumichitr.

Preparation

Lemon grass' outer sheath is fibrous and tough, so you've got two choices in cooking. Either peel the tough outer and upper leaves away, then mince the inner core like a green onion, says Elizabeth Schneider in Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables, or smash the white bulb and mince finely.

In the new Field Guide to Herbs & Spices, Aliza Green suggests smashing lemon grass with a meat mallet or the side of a heavy knife before using, to release the oils.

Cooking

Asian cultures credit lemon grass with aiding digestion and lifting spirits, so don't save it just for Thai dishes.

The tougher leaves add wonderful flavor to soups and curries, so freeze them. Plan to remove before serving just as you do with bay leaves.

Fifteen-Minute Lemon-Grass Chicken

Serves 4 to 6

about 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil

2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/2 -inch strips, set on paper towel

1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons finely minced lemon-grass bulb

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 cup low-salt canned chicken broth

1 tablespoon spicy oyster sauce or 1 tablespoon regular oyster sauce plus pinch dried red-chili flakes

salt and pepper, to taste

chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)

Heat oil in wok or large, deep skillet over high heat. Add chicken, onion and garlic. Stir-fry until chicken is partially cooked, about 4 minutes. Add lemon grass, fish sauce, sugar, coriander and turmeric; stir-fry 3 minutes.

Add broth and oyster sauce. Reduce heat to simmer until sauce thickens and chicken is thoroughly cooked, about 4 to 5 minutes. Taste; season with salt and pepper, as needed. Serve with rice. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired.

From "Melissa's Great Book of Produce," by Cathy Thomas

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 288 calories, 34 grams protein, 13 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 7 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 548 milligrams sodium

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