Seasonal Pantry: Tips to cook with lemongrass
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 wildlife.ca.gov 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.