Dinner Tonight: Lemon Grass

I had a case of the sludgies yesterday. The humidity hung over me like a scratchy woolen blanket - big, bulky and smothering. The energy level was drooping by the minute, and I couldn't snap out of it. Come on, rain, I shouted to the overcast skies, give us earthlings a little relief.

lemon grass
Lemon grass: the amazing cooler off-er. (Kim O'Donnel)

I felt like joining the neighborhood cat, Shakespeare (he had just invited himself indoors, as he's wont to do), who stretched out onto the cool wood that is my living room floor. Yeah, I know what you mean, pal. It's brutal out there.

It was even difficult to think, yet I knew I had to come up with something for dinner to help wash away the cotton brain.

What first came to mind was the lemon, yet I wasn't in the mood for an intense acidic flavor. But lemon grass, that lemon-scented stalk used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking (among others), might do the trick. In spite of its lemony qualities, lemongrass is lighter on the palate and hardly acidic. Think of ginger and lemon mixed together, but mellowed out. Smooth jazz.

Native to India, lemon grass (aka Cymbopogon ciatrus and citronella -- yes, the insect repellent) is a tough, grassy stalk that can grow up to three feet in warm climates. (I'm told that this tropical perennial can be grown in pots during east coast summers, but will go dormant when temperatures start to dip.)

I remove its cud-tough exterior, until arriving at a pale yellow-whitish core, where it's lemon grass central. I also need to chop off the bulbous root and those hard-to-digest grassy tops (although these can be used for infusions.).

I'm feeling cooler already; there's something about the subtle perfume of lemon grass that brings about a sense of calm and relaxation. Perhaps this is why it earned the name "fever grass" in the Caribbean, where it's commonly used as a remedy (in tea) to fight fever and flu.

To maximize its cooling effects, I decided on lemon grass two ways -- appearing in both my entree and beverage. Chicken thighs would get a rubdown with a lemon grass-based paste, joined by garlic, jalapeno and scallions. The rub-a-dub goes something like this:

For four pounds of chicken thighs (skinned), Make a paste using: 5 stalks of lemongrass (outer stalks and root removed, as discussed earlier), 3 scallions, 1 or 2 garlic cloves, 1/2 jalapeno, seeded, a pinch of sugar and 1/4 cup vegetable oil.

Whiz everything in a food processor. Make slits with a knife in chicken and massage paste into slits, thoroughly covering chicken. Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours (the longer, the more intense flavor). Season with salt and grill over medium heat until 165 degrees, when juices run clear.

To drink, I discovered an intriguing recipe for a spiced limeade from the kitchen of James Oseland, cookbook writer and newly appointed editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

Wow, what an inspiring elixir! In addition to three lemongrass stalks, this "tea" gets infused with cloves, fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks. A few tablespoons of lime juice are added off the heat, adding just enough pungency. Lots of depth here, but gentle enough to sip throughout the afternoon, warding off that woolen blanket syndrome. I could also see this as a delightful mixer with rum, for a more adult cooler-offer.

A final note: As Food section writer Walter Nicholls reported earlier this summer, the heavy rains in California, where most U.S. lemon grass is grown, has taken its toll on crops, which has caused lemon grass prices to jump dramatically. To wit, the lemon grass I bought at Bangkok 54, my neighborhood Thai grocery in Arlington, Va., currently goes for $7 per pound. Five stalks cost me about five bucks.

To drink, I discovered an intriguing recipe for a spiced limeade from the kitchen of James Oseland, cookbook writer and newly appointed editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.

Wow, what an inspiring elixir! In addition to three lemongrass stalks, this "tea" gets infused with cloves, fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks. A few tablespoons of lime juice are added off the heat, adding just enough pungency. Lots of depth here, but gentle enough to sip throughout the afternoon, warding off that woolen blanket syndrome. I could also see this as a delightful mixer with rum, for a more adult cooler-offer.

A final note: As Food section writer Walter Nicholls reported earlier this summer, the heavy rains in California, where most U.S. lemon grass is grown, has taken its toll on crops, which has caused lemon grass prices to jump dramatically. To wit, the lemon grass I bought at Bangkok 54, my neighborhood Thai grocery in Arlington, Va., currently goes for $7 per pound. Five stalks cost me about five bucks.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 8, 2006; 10:58 AM ET Chicken/Poultry , Dinner Tonight
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Yum...I'll have to try the chicken dish!

And for anyone wanting to make food with large quantities of lemongrass, I highly recommend buying it at an Asian market (Eden center, Grandmart, Hanahreum, etc). It will be a lot cheaper (and the stalks will be bigger) than in the grocery store!

Posted by: Arlington | August 8, 2006 12:54 PM

How did you know? I've got three stalks of lemongrass (from a recent trip to Han Ah Reum) and was wondering what to do with it. Chicken happens to be defrosting in the fridge right now, so dinner is solved. Thanks for the tip and for pointing us to James Oseland's site -- those recipes look great, too.

Posted by: westsloper | August 8, 2006 3:37 PM

Hey Kim -- is the dried lemongrass-in-a-jar (sold in the herb section of some supermarkets) worth buying/using? I've got some on the shelf, and wondered whether I could use it in a recipe that calls for lemongrass.

Posted by: DMS | August 9, 2006 3:53 PM

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