Demystifying lemongrass

With an ode to Magic Kitchen

click to enlarge Lemongrass at an Asian market. - PHOTO BY PETER GLATZ
Photo by Peter Glatz
Lemongrass at an Asian market.

I've always dreamed of opening up my own restaurant. The problem is, I've never liked running a business. I loved being a dentist, but I hated being a business owner. In my second career as a chef, I've loved the restaurant work, but I acknowledge that I'd suck at being a restaurant owner.

The kind of restaurant I would have liked to open was like the restaurant portrayed in Stanley Tucci's 1996 movie Big Night, the story of two Italian immigrant brothers who opened an Italian restaurant in the 1950s on the New Jersey shore. Their menu was authentic, and the food was superlative, but financially, the restaurant was a dismal failure. It made me realize that my concept of a great restaurant might not jive with the tastes of Springfield's horseshoe lovers.

I couldn't have predicted that the Magic Kitchen Thai restaurant would change the Springfield dining scene forever. I went there shortly after it opened 38 years ago, and the memory of my first visit is still vivid. I ordered lemongrass soup. My server tried to warn me: "It's really, really hot. And don't eat the lemongrass stalks. They're too chewy."

As I tried to soothe my burning lips with a piece of sour cream raisin pie, I remember thinking: "The food is fantastic, but the Magic Kitchen will never succeed in Springfield." It just goes to show how little I knew. After years of sitting on the hood of my car in their parking lot, waiting for a table, I realized that my judgment of what would appeal to Springfield diners was extremely flawed and I decided to take a pass on ever trying to open my own place.

That was my first encounter with lemongrass. Lemongrass is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. It adds a light but complex flavor and aroma that is both lemony and gingery. Lemongrass pairs well with the flavors of garlic, ginger, cilantro, Thai basil, shallots and coconut milk. It adds brightness to curries, soups and marinades.

Preparing lemongrass is a bit like preparing an artichoke. You have to remove quite a bit to get to the good part. Begin by chopping off a little of the dry end and skinny green parts. Make a slit lengthwise and peel away any loose or dry outer layers. To chop a trimmed stalk, cut into four-inch sections, halve each section lengthwise, whack the stalk with a rolling pin, meat hammer, or a cast iron skillet, cut crosswise into half circles, then chop into the desired size. The fibrous leaf blades can also add flavor to broths; tie them in a knot, gently bruise, and remove before serving.

If you have more lemongrass than the recipe requires, you can trim and freeze the remainder in resealable freezer bags for three months. You can also infuse a few lemongrass stalks in vodka for a week or so and it will impart a delicate, lemony taste. If you put the leftover stalks in a quart jar with a little water and set it on your windowsill, they will root and can be planted outside.

Grilled lemongrass chicken wings

This is my all-time favorite way to grill wings.

Ingredients

3 pounds chicken wings, tips removed, flats and drumettes separated

2 tablespoons garlic, chopped

1/4 cup shallots, chopped

1/4 cup fresh ginger, grated

3 tablespoons scallion whites, chopped

1/2 cup lemongrass bottoms, chopped

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/3 cup fish sauce

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons peanut oil

Kosher salt

1/4 cup dry-roasted peanuts, chopped

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

Preparation

For the marinade: Combine the garlic, shallots, ginger, scallions, lemongrass, brown sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and peanut oil in a food processor and process until smooth. Set aside ½ cup to use for basting. Put the wings in a large resealable plastic bag with the remaining marinade. Refrigerate overnight.

Preheat a grill to medium. Place the wings on the grill, season with a little salt, and turn and baste every few minutes, for about 15 to 20 minutes. Continue to grill the wings until cooked through and nicely browned, about 5 to 10 minutes more.

To serve, garnish with the peanuts and cilantro.

Lemongrass tofu

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 pound block of firm tofu

cup minced lemongrass

2 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon Thai bird chilies or another fresh chili, minced

1½ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 tablespoon fish sauce

4 tablespoons canola oil

½ yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

c loosely packed Thai basil

c unsalted roasted peanuts

Preparation

Place tofu on a baking sheet that has been lined with paper towels. Place another pan on top and weigh the pan with a heavy object for about 30 minutes.

In a resealable plastic bag, combine the lemongrass, soy sauce, chili paste, turmeric, sugar and fish sauce. Seal the bag, and rub with your hands until the sugar is dissolved. When the tofu has drained, cut it into ¾-inch cubes and add to the marinade, turning gently to coat. Marinate for 30 minutes.

In a large nonstick skillet or wok, heat half the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and stir until fragrant and softened, 3-5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic and continue to cook until the mixture is golden, a couple of minutes more. Transfer to a dish and keep warm.

Return the skillet to the heat, add the remaining oil, and raise the heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and toss it very gently for about 5 minutes. Some of the tofu will break apart, which is fine, but you want to keep the cubes as intact as possible. Add the onion mixture, half the peanuts and all of the basil. Cook for another couple minutes, stirring gently. Serve immediately, garnished with the rest of the peanuts over rice.

Lemongrass pork patties

In Vietnam, pork patties like this are grilled over charcoal at street food stalls. You can serve these patties wrapped in lettuce leaves, or as a topper for a noodle or rice bowl.

Ingredients

1 pound ground pork

1 tablespoon minced garlic

¼ cup minced shallot

¼ cup minced lemongrass

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 eggs

¼ cup fish sauce

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup breadcrumbs

Preparation

Mix all ingredients. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours. Form into patties, and grill or sauté over medium heat until cooked through.

Of all the Thai restaurants Peter has visited over the years, Magic Kitchen remains his favorite.

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