Seasonal Pantry: Tips to cook with lemongrass

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It can be difficult to put all necessary information into the instructions of a recipe. Recipes have, over the decades, gotten much more detailed, but they still, for the most part, assume a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader.

The days of recipes as short paragraphs of three or four sentences, without measurements or detailed instructions, are long gone, but people who have not grown up watching a parent or other relative cook can still be flummoxed in the kitchen.

For example, if an ingredient list calls for “1 lemongrass stalk, fat part only, thinly sliced” what exactly does it mean? If you typically cook with lemongrass you know, but if you don’t, you might flounder, especially if you don’t know what to look for at the market.

First of all, it is important to know what lemongrass is, exactly. It is, indeed, a type of grass; it grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Until recently, you’d find it in Asian markets in the U.S. but now major grocery stores often carry it. The best will be green, but the root end, which should be fatter than the main stalk, is be paler than the rest of the stalk.

The problem with supermarket lemongrass is that it is often not fresh and doesn’t always include the fat part. This can be quite confusing to a cook who has never used it before. You can easily put the term into Google’s search bar and hit “images,” something that can be done with any ingredient. Once you know what an ingredient should look like, it is easy to choose the right thing.

What the instruction “fat part only” wants you to do is cut away the root, if attached, and the long thin stalk, leaving only the fattest part, often referred to as a bulb, that is about 1½ inches in circumference at its thicket part.

But once you have it, what comes next? First, you need to take off the tough outer layers, something that can be facilitated by pounding the root two or three times to loosen those layers and lightly crush the inner portion, which will help release its aromas and flavors. Next, you need a sharp knife to slice the bulb into thin rounds, not strips.

If the lemongrass is not quite fresh, even the inner part of the bulb may be hard and fibrous. Cut into thin rounds, it poses no danger, as there are no spikes on a round of lemongrass that could cut into someone’s palate. But a cook unfamiliar with lemongrass might cut it into lengthwise strips, which won’t soften during cooking and could cause a painful cut to the inside of someone’s mouth.

A cook who understands lemongrass might go one step beyond the instructions when faced with a dried bulb and simply pound it several times, put it into the dish and then remove it before serving, as I recommend in the chowder recipe below. It will have imparted much of its flavor and it won’t poke anyone.


We are starting to see tomatoes at our local farmers market, though they are coming from inland regions where the planting season typically starts earlier than it does here. Same with corn; it’s in our markets now and it’s from California, but not Sonoma County. It’s salmon season, too. For more information about salmon season in California, visit and enter “Pacific King salmon” in the search bar. If you prefer, you can use dry-smoked salmon in this recipe. To do so, break the salmon into chucks and add it to the soup with the coconut milk.

Tomato & Corn Chowder with Salmon, Ginger, & Lemongrass

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons coconut oil or mildly flavored olive oil

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

l serrano, stemmed and minced

— Kosher salt

1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated

l quart fish stock (see note below) or chicken stock, hot

2 lemongrass stalks, fat parts only, well pounded

— Juice of l lime

½ cup dry white wine

1 cup tomato concassé, from 2 to 3 large heirloom tomatoes

1 cup fresh corn kernels, from 1 cob

1 pound wild Pacific King salmon fillet, skinned and cut into 1 ½-inch cubes

¾ cup coconut milk

½ cup cilantro leaves

— Black pepper in a mill

Pour the oil into a medium soup pot set over medium low heat, add the onion and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and serrano, sauté 2 minutes more and season with salt.

Add the ginger, fish stock and lemongrass, lower the heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add the lime juice, wine and tomatoes and simmer another 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let rest 15 minutes.

Use tongs to remove and discard the lemongrass. Add the corn and the salmon and let the soup simmer very gently for a scant 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and cilantro and heat through.

Taste, correct for salt, and season with several generous turns of black pepper.

Ladle into soup plates and enjoy right away.

Note: To make fish stock, put 3 pounds of fish heads and fish frames (easy to come by at such places as Santa Rosa Seafood), 1 large quartered yellow onion, 2 or 3 sprigs Italian parsley, 1 bay leaf, ½ lemon, 1 cup dry white wine, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns and 4 cups water in a large soup kettle. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, skim off any foam that forms, and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, cool and refrigerate for up to 3 days. You may also freeze fish stock. As a substitute for true stock, you can use a mixture of 2 parts clam juice, 1 part white wine, 1 part water and the juice of 1 lemon.


Many health benefits are attributed to lemongrass tea. It is said to relieve anxiety, lower cholesterol, prevent infection, relieve bloating, boost oral health and red blood cell count and block pain. I do not have direct experience with any of these claims but I can say without hesitation that it is fragrant, delicious and refreshing. It is full of lemony flavor but without the acidic tartness. If you are accustomed to sweetening your tea, try this one first without doing so. You might like it.

Lemongrass Tea (and Lemongrass Lemonade variation)

Makes 1 quart

4 lemongrass stalks, root and tough stems removed

4 cups boiling water

Set the lemongrass on a clean work surface and use a wooden meat tenderizer or French rolling pin to pound the fat parts several times, so that they open up to reveal their interiors.

Warm a quart jar under hot running water. Pour the boiling water into the jar, add the lemongrass, and set aside for 15 to 30 minutes.

Remove the lemongrass; save it for a second infusion if you like, or discard it, preferably in your compost.

Sip the tea hot or chill it and enjoy it as iced tea.

To make lemongrass lemonade variation: Prepare lemongrass tea as described in the main recipe. Leave it in the quart jar and chill it thoroughly. To finish the lemonade, pour the chilled tea into a 2-quart jar or pitcher and add 2 cups of freshly-squeezed lemon juice. Add enough simple syrup to achieve the level of sweetness you prefer and add a generous pinch or two of salt. Fill glasses with ice, pour the lemonade over the ice and garnish with a stalk of lemongrass, a couple of lemon verbena leaves or a slice of lemon, and enjoy.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes.” Email her at

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