Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citrates), also known as citronella, is a favorite flavoring ingredient in Asian cuisines, particularly Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. This tall, fibrous tropical grass is native to India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia and has a distinct lemony fragrance that comes from an essential oil known as citral. It has a white fleshy bulbous base where most of its tart, citrus-like flavor is found. The long stringy leaves or blades range in color from white to pale green, sometimes with streaks of purple.
BUYING & STORING
Fresh lemongrass is generally available year round and is widely available in supermarkets throughout the US. If you have trouble locating some, seek out a good Asian market where you’re bound to find some. When purchasing, the first thing to do is smell it. It should be quite fragrant. Stalks should be firm and moist with bright pale green leaves. Avoid stalks that are wrinkled, dried, bruised or brownish-yellow. Lemongrass is also available dried, freeze-dried and even canned, but all lack the intense bright flavor of fresh.
Fresh stalks can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks if tightly wrapped in plastic or foil. They will also freeze well for up to 6 months. So there’s no reason to throw away any unused stalks.
PREPARING & COOKING
Rinse thoroughly and peel away any tough or damaged outer leaves before using. Because of its fibrous nature, add to dishes whole, towards the end of the cooking process, and removed before serving. To help the release its volatile oils, pound the stalk with a mallet or the handle of a large knife.
The white base end is the most tender and can be eaten raw if cut across into thin slices. The fleshy inner portion at the base of the stalk can be ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle and mixed with a little coconut milk and other herbs to form a flavor paste for soups, stews and curries.
The harder ends of the stalks can be used as skewers for fish or shrimp satay.
Lemongrass marries well with fish and shellfish, but it also pairs nicely with chicken and pork. Other strong affinities include cilantro, basil (particularly Thai basil), chile peppers, ginger, and shallots.