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If you like Thai food, you've probably enjoyed the taste of lemongrass even though you might not have seen it. The reason is that this aromatic herb, with a lemony scent and a flavor that recalls lemon zest, is usually removed before the dish is served.
You'll find restaurants named "Lemongrass" from Portland to Phnom Penh. But the name doesn't pinpoint the restaurant's cooking style; it might be one of several Asian cuisines. Lemongrass is used primarily in Southeast Asia, notably in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia but also in cuisines less familiar to us, in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Thai and Indonesian cooks use lemongrass in meat, poultry, seafood and vegetable curries, often with coconut milk and chilies, or pound it with garlic, chilies and spices to make curry pastes. I find the lemongrass aroma is more pronounced in Vietnamese curries, because they tend to be less fiery than those made in the Thai tradition.
In the Vietnamese kitchen, lemongrass is especially popular for flavoring beef broth, which is used as the basis for numerous soups. You may have come across them if you've ever eaten at Pho restaurants, which specialize in flavorful beef soups enhanced with slices of meat, rice noodles, bean sprouts and a profusion of fresh herbs.
In India lemongrass is used mainly for perfumes, but cooks in Sri Lanka add the herb to fish and seafood dishes. Suharshini Seneviratne, the author of Exotic Tastes of Sri Lanka (Hippocrene, 2003), recommends using it in a mild white fish curry with coconut milk, ginger and garlic.
Lemongrass also flavors some Caribbean stews.
Yet lemongrass is not just for spicy cuisines. French chefs appreciate its subtle flavor. Indeed, I first encountered the fragrant herb when I lived in Paris. With the city's sizable Vietnamese population, it was natural that their ingredients came to the attention of creative French chefs.
They infuse the Asian herb in fish stock, which they then turn into butter sauces to accompany poached fish.
Infusing is a great way to take advantage of the flavor of lemongrass, which slowly permeates a liquid. This is why lemongrass is also used in pickles and marinades.
Neighbors of mine grow lemongrass because it makes such tasty tea. This is a popular custom among Israeli gardeners. Steep a few pieces in a teapot with tea leaves, and it imparts a wonderful flavor and aroma to the brew. You can also use it on its own or paired with gingerroot slices to make herbal tea. For dessert, infuse lemongrass in syrup to make sorbet, or in milk or cream to make ice cream. In fact, you can add lemongrass to all sorts of recipes that benefit from a lemony taste when you don't want the acidity that comes from lemon juice.
American chefs have come up with many new ways to use lemongrass. My friend Akasha Richmond, the author of Hollywood Dish (Avery, 2006), uses lemongrass to flavor her holy basil matza ball soup. She simmers lemongrass and ginger in the chicken broth, then strains it before adding basil-jalapeno matza balls. For her chicken curry with daikon, she cooks lemongrass slices in the sauce but removes them before serving because they are too fibrous to be eaten. Fresh lemongrass can be left in a dish only if it has been ground, pounded or chopped as finely as possible.
Akasha loves to add lemongrass to the pan when she poaches chicken; it flavors the meat and gives her the basis for a soup. After poaching the chicken with lemongrass, ginger, onions, shallots and garlic, she cooks carrots and butternut squash in the broth, then blends it to obtain a healthful, rich tasting soup.
You can find the pale, gray-green stalks of fresh lemongrass at some supermarkets and you can order it on-line at companies like exotica.co.il, where it is called esev limon; I've also heard it referred to in Hebrew as limonit. You can grow it easily in a pot. It keeps for two or three weeks in the refrigerator, or you can chop it and keep it in the freezer.
Some Asian groceries, health food stores and spice shops carry dried lemongrass, but it is much less aromatic and less flavorful than the fresh. If you will be cooking the dried form only briefly, soak it first in hot water until it softens before you use it.
Use only the lower, thick portion of the fresh lemongrass stalk for recipes that call for pounding, slicing or chopping the herb. Before cutting it, peel off the layer of tough outer leaves. The upper part of the stalk is too fibrous to be eaten but can be cut into pieces with scissors or a knife and infused in liquids.
BRAISED COD WITH LEMONGRASS TOMATO SAUCE
Serve this light French-style entree with rice pilaf. For a festive presentation, trim each zucchini piece to an oval shape. You can also prepare this dish with fillets of haddock or halibut.
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 800-gr. cans tomatoes, drained and chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1â„4 tsp. dried leaf thyme
1 Tbsp. minced fresh lemongrass or 2 to 3 tsp.
dried; or grated zest of 1 lemon
1 medium green onion, minced
680 gr. fillets of cod, with any bones removed
1 Tbsp. dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1â„3 cup fish stock or vegetable broth
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut in
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in tomatoes, salt, pepper and thyme. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are very soft and sauce is thick, about 35 minutes. Sauce will be chunky.
Meanwhile, mince fresh lemongrass: peel off tough outer layers and cut off tough thin tops.
Chop more tender inner part of thick stalk. You will need about a 4-cm. section to obtain 1 tablespoon minced lemongrass.
Preheat oven to 220Âº. Generously oil a 10-cup oval gratin dish or other heavy shallow baking dish; sprinkle with green onion. Cut an oval piece of parchment paper to size of dish and oil the paper.
Measure thickness of fillets at thickest point and calculate 9 minutes per 2.5 cm.
Arrange fish pieces in baking dish in one layer.
Sprinkle fish with wine, salt and pepper. Bring fish stock to simmer in very small saucepan and pour over fish. Set oiled paper directly on fish.
Bake until fish is opaque, about 9 minutes per 2.5 cm. of thickness. Check fillets: For thin fillets, look at surface of fish to see whether it has lost its raw color. For fillets thicker than 2 cm., insert a cake tester or thin skewer into thickest part of fish for about 5 seconds and touch tester to underside of your wrist; it should be hot to touch. If fish is not done, bake another 2 minutes and test again.
Remove fish carefully to platter with two wide slotted spatulas, reserving cooking liquid. Cover fish with its paper to keep warm. Strain braising liquid and add to tomato sauce. Add garlic and fresh or 2 teaspoons dried lemongrass and boil, stirring often, until thickened, about 2 minutes.
Taste and adjust seasoning. If you like, soak remaining teaspoon dried lemongrass in 1 to 2 tablespoons hot water, stir into sauce and simmer another minute.
Meanwhile, boil zucchini in large pan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well.
Discard any liquid from fish platter. Coat fish with sauce. Spoon zucchini around it. Serve remaining sauce separately.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.