Ask Peter: Lemongrass
I have finally got my head around lemongrass and my recipes are successful now that someone has shown me that the white part only really does just mean the white part right inside many outer layers of leaves at the bottom of the stalk. But I throw an awful lot away and, in fact, I bought a packet recently that didn’t have the bottom of the stalk in it which was a waste of money. Should I be using the rest of the stalk for other things to avoid wastefulness?
Lemongrass is a truly versatile herb and it’s the lemon-ness of it that should prove interesting rather than the fact it’s Asian in origin. There are some cooks who feel ingredients can only be used in dishes that originate from the same place as the ingredient (lacking-in-imagination purists, I’d call them) so it’s not an ingredient that appears in everyone’s pantry.
I use lemongrass in place of actual lemon zest in all sorts of dishes from salad dressings to marinades, baking and drinks. Lemongrass doesn’t know it’s a foreigner, so use it often so its lovely lemony notes will add a refreshing burst of flavour to your dishes. Likewise, I use lemon verbena and the delicious Australian myrtle when they seem appropriate.
You’re correct that the best part to ingest is the more tender inner part of the lemongrass as the outer leaves are fibrous and chewy. How you prepare it depends on what you’re planning to make.
For a chicken stew or light fish broth where you may not want to bite on thin slices of the herb, the best thing to do is to take the stalk and bash it with a meat hammer or similar, to lightly crush it. If the lemongrass is long enough then tie it into a knot (it’ll take up less space in the pot) and add to the dish, simmering for at least 15 minutes. The crushing squashes the cells and the essential oils are released, allowing the flavour to leach out. The fact you’re not eating the lemongrass itself works well here as you’ll remove the knotted bundle before you serve it. This means you can use all of the herb, not just the tender inner parts, have less wastage, and still benefit from the flavour.
If you’re wanting to have your friends actually bite on the crunchy grass, then you really do need to strip off the outer layers. If you have an actual lemongrass stalk, and not just a segment, then cut off the very thin upper leaves and the bottom 1cm of the base. The former will have very little flavour as they’re often quite dry and lacking in aroma, but the base will have plenty. Peel off the outer 2-3 layers of leaves until you have exposed the inner core – the fatter the stalk the more inner core you’ll have to play with.
Don’t throw away any of the leaves apart from the uppermost parts. Cut or tie the outer leaves and base and store in the freezer to be used in vege, fish or chicken stocks at another time. Using a sharp knife, slice the inner core very thin — and add to salads, soups, cocktails or wherever you’d like some crunchy lemon-ness.
I like to make a lemon ginger dressing to be used on baked or roast fish, steamed or grilled or chicken, or on a vegetable salad. Put 1 tablespoon of thinly sliced lemongrass into a blender. Add 30ml (2 tablespoons) lemon or lime juice, 1 tablespoon grated ginger, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 30ml toasted sesame oil, and 75ml light olive oil or sunflower oil. Puree until really fine and add a little salt if you think it needs it.
Two other uses of lemongrass you may not be aware of are in the bath and the teapot. Tie the fibrous outer leaves into a bundle and add to a running bath along with some sliced peeled ginger for an invigorating bath. And add the same, in slightly smaller quantities, to a teapot before pouring on freshly boiled water and manuka honey for a great caffeine-free brew!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.