Lemongrass. The word itself describes its almost indescribable cachet. At once lemony — but without the tart or the tang; grassy — but without the pungent earthiness that adds a note of complexity to the other grassy herbs. It is what it is; a mouth aroma more than a flavor, in my estimation. It is delicate. Ethereal. When put through the rigors of most cooking processes, its flavor becomes fleeting and elusive. It is the very definition of “indulgence” around the Gilded Fork test kitchen. And, like most indulgences we work through here, we’ve run the gamut coaxing and pushing the flavor of lemongrass in a way that allows its presence to be gently known, without commanding attention over the entire dish.
Those who are familiar with lemongrass as an herb will naturally default in their thinking to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine — perhaps even Caribbean cuisine, as its primary expression. And though a regular feature in Asian-styled dishes, it is also known to be a centerpiece in the repertoires of tea houses and herbalists. But what makes lemongrass compelling as an herb is its aromatic oil content.
Fresh lemongrass is sold in stalks that can be quite large, up to two feet long. More commonly, the smaller stalks are sold in bunches, or segments in packages. The fibrous stalks are almost reed-like, and not pleasurable when consumed in raw form. Instead, lemongrass is exalted for its fragrance and flavor, and its pieces are traditionally removed from the cooked dish. What is captivating about lemongrass, though, is the receptivity of these sizeable stalks to a variety of other treatments, which transforms the lemongrass — in all of its indulgent evocativeness — into an integral part of the recipe.
We pounded it into a paste, and finely chopped it to release the true aromatic characteristics of the herb, and discovered this stronger and sweeter element to be so much more appealing than lemons. It is what we set out to capture and wrap delicately into our palette of flavors.
In the end, we discovered a few ways to coax that heady mouth aroma out of the stalks and into our food. Our testing found that gently pounding individual stalks released the delicate, perfumed and flavorful oils of the lemongrass. When used as skewers for our Lemongrass Shrimp, the herb imparted its delicate flavor into the pieces of shrimp. Of course, the trick to successfully skewering the shrimps is to have shaved your stalks down enough, and whittled one end to a point (which is a bit tricky, as the leaves get less fibrous and tender as you move into the interior of the stalk). Additionally, a longer marinade time allowed the lemongrass to delicately infuse and perfume the shrimp. “Delicately” being the operative word.
The infusion of finely chopped lemongrass into liquid bases was another technique we found particularly desirable to extract its flavor. This method requires relying on the heat of the stove to draw out the lemony oils, and the blender to incorporate the pieces into the final product. We used this method in both the Lemongrass Vinaigrette and the Lemongrass Cilantro Sorbet. In the Lemongrass Martini, however, heat was not used. The alcohol acts as its own catalyst drawing the sweet grassy lemon flavor out.
The most substantial and effective result was obtained by drying the lemongrass in the gentle heat of the oven, and then pulverizing it into a powder — pure Lemongrass Essence. This turned out to be one of the most effective, and elemental, ways to impart the pure lemongrass flavor into our food platforms, and became the flavor cornerstone of the Creamy Lemongrass Dressing for the Grilled Romaine salad.
Recipe: Grilled Romaine with Creamy Lemongrass Dressing
When using lemongrass, it is essential to remember that it is, indeed, an indulgence, and behaves that way. You will rarely, if ever, experience lemongrass in such a way that it is overwhelming. The taste is best thought of as a mouth aroma, never with the powerful tartness and sharp citrus of lemons. It is what it is. Grassy. Delicate. Sweet and oh, so desirable.
Test kitchen dossier by Donna Marie Zotter
Photo: Andy Whitelock
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.