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Lovely Lemongrass
By Pat Eby
Posted On: 09/01/2010   


For Justin Keay of North County Produce Co., the lemongrass he planted for the first time this year can’t mature soon enough. He cooks the Thai, Vietnamese and southeast Asian foods he enjoys with store-bought lemongrass for now, but he believes the freshly cut stalks he’ll harvest in early September will add even more flavor.

“It looks like a decorative grass, nothing special, until you break a leaf and smell the lemon,” he said. Late July, the stalks at the Florissant farm were still undeveloped and pencil-thin; mature stalks swell to a graceful roundness at the base. The color gradates from creamy bulbs to brilliantly green, finely serrated leaves.

Kruse Gardens has offered lemongrass for several years at its Soulard Farmers’ Market stand in response to customers’ requests. “Just-harvested lemongrass is much more flavorful,” Arlene Kruse said. “We sell each fall to Cardwell’s. They freeze it to use throughout the year.”

Kruse plants her lemongrass in a low-lying area, where the moisture-loving plants flourish. This summer, the intense heat and frequent rainstorms produced a bumper crop of weeds that could stunt her harvest. “It’s the perfect conditions, the trifecta, for weeds to get out of control,” she said.

At Jay International Foods, lemongrass sits wrapped tightly in plastic, each bunch containing four or five stalks 12 to 18 inches long. Even though fresh lemongrass is available year-round, owner Noy Liam expects his regular customers will experience sticker shock this fall. “The droughts in California and Mexico are driving up the price of fresh,” he said. Noy’s customers may opt for the frozen lemongrass, which costs a bit less.

That frozen lemongrass is minced to a fine, Technicolor green powder-like texture that incorporated smoothly into yummy saam sausages and into a chicken soup flavored with coconut milk and hot chiles. Both experiments tasted great, but I learned more from handling the fresh stalks. My adventure had its comic moments, however.

The directions for prepping began, “Remove the tough outer leaves.” But they all seemed tough. “Trim the woody part from the bottom of the stalk, then trim the tops just above where the leaves begin to fan out.” Leaves fanning out, easy. Woody part of the stalk? It’s all woody. I trimmed almost a quarter of an inch above the root plate in compromise.

To mince, I used my second-string chef’s knife; I’m glad I didn’t use my Henkels blade on the stubborn stalks. For infusions, the prep directions suggested pounding with the handle of the chef’s knife to bruise. After three hearty whacks, I got out my mallet and whaled on them. Better, but a lot of work.

So why bother? Because the delicate flavor of lemongrass can’t be duplicated. Plus you get lemony flavor without the acidity of lemon juice.

A simple cooked syrup of water, sugar and pounded lemongrass made a terrific lemonade. The saam sausages, made from ground pork, garlic, fish sauce and sriacha grilled beautifully. Served wrapped in bibb lettuce, dipped in fish sauce and accompanied by pickled daikon and carrots, the appetizer looked and tasted gorgeous.

Rice and soups cooked with lemongrass-infused water had a subtle flavor snap I appreciated. Pieces of pounded-thin chicken breasts skewered on lemongrass stalks and marinated in honey, red pepper flakes and lemon juice grilled easily. Paired with a gazpacho shooter on the side, they made an elegant entrée.

I found my lemongrass adventure took me to unexpected places: lemongrass ice cream, sorbets, crème anglaise, a triple berrry tiramisu made with a lemongrass syrup coating the ladyfingers and even sponge cake with lemongrass, topped with raspberries and lemongrass whipped cream. East meets Midwest. Perfect.


Lemongrass Sponge Cake With Whipped Cream and Fall Raspberries
Makes 8 to 10

INGREDIENTS

3 large eggs
3 Tbsp. finely minced lemongrass, divided
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. granulated sugar, divided
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup flour
1½ tsp. vanilla, divided
½ cup boiling water
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 cups fresh (or frozen) raspberries
3 Tbsp. light brown sugar
1 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
2 pints heavy whipping cream

PREPARATION

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 for dark-colored pans). Prepare a 10-inch cake pan with a parchment circle liner for the bottom of the pan. Do not grease the pan.
• Chill a small stainless bowl and mixer beaters in the freezer.
• Mix together the eggs, 2 tablespoons of the lemongrass, 1 cup of sugar and the salt.
• Add the baking powder to the flour and blend. Add the flour to the egg mixture and stir by hand until just blended.
• Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and the boiling water and pour the batter into the prepared pan.
• Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cake top is evenly raised and looks dry and the edges are browned. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
• About 10 minutes into the cake baking, melt the butter over low heat in a 2-quart saucepan. When the butter is just melted, add the berries, sprinkle them with brown sugar and stir to coat. Cook over medium-low until the berries start to juice, about 3 to 6 minutes.
• Add the water and stir. Cook an additional minute. Remove from heat. Add the lemon juice and zest.
• Pour the whipping cream into the chilled bowl, add 2 tablespoons sugar, the remaining tablespoon of lemongrass and ½ teaspoon vanilla. Whip until soft peaks form. Refrigerate until serving time.
• Run a knife around the edge of the cake and slide it onto a plate. Cut the cake into 8 to 10 wedges.
• To serve, top one slice of the cake with a spoonful of the berries and a dollop of the whipped cream.

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