Archive for August, 2011
Fresh lemongrass was once an extra-trip Asian ingredient, available only in Asian markets which catered to a Southeast Asian community of cooks. These days, it’s more widely available around the USA in many supermarkets and farmer’s markets. Here in North Carolina, several local grocery stores carry it yearround, usually imported from Mexico or brought up from Florida. It’s good, though it tends be large, and on the dry side. Lemongrass as grown in a home cook’s garden, or sold in the fresh markets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, would be a brighter green in color, with a smaller bulb.
But what’s widely available here will work fine, as long as the stalks have a firm and sturdy bulbous base. Look for strong purple color in the concentric rings you’ll see when you cut a stalk crosswise near the base. Purple means flavor and color. If you see it, you’ve got good stalks, useable in cooking and in rooting lemongrass for your own garden. Here’s my latest lemongrass purchase:
Note the bulbous base, with a small, diminishing dried portion below the baseline. That’s good: some supermarkets sell lemongrass which has been trimmed right up past the rounded base, exposing the concentric rings inside the stalks. This is useless stuff; let the produce manager know that it’s not what you need. You can keep lemongrass unwrapped in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days, and on the counter for a day or two. Best to use it sooner rather than later, because unlike you and me, it doesn’t improve with age.
Growing lemongrass at home is a great pleasure; I’ve been doing it for many years, after a Vietnamese friend showed me how back when we lived in Carlsbad, California, just north of San Diego. There it thrived year-round; here in North Carolina, I grow it from early spring through hard frost. This is the big pot I have growing on the deck at our house, starting with stalks I rooted in early June.
If you’d like to grow lemongrass, here’s how to start:
* Go buy yourself a good big bunch like what I’ve shown above in this post.
* Trim each stalk down to about a 6-inch long piece, cutting off the grassy tops
and keeping the bulbed base with the root end.
* Stick the trimmed stalks in water.
* Put them in a sunny place, and change the water every couple of days.
* Check back here in a few days and I’ll show you the next steps.
Buy plenty, so you can cook with some of it as well as put in a good supply of stalks to root. Here’s my version of a marvelous Vietnamese dish which puts fresh lemongrass to delicious use. It’s called ga xao xa ot, and it’s the perfect companion to rice, or noodles, along with a simple salad or stir-fried greens.
Nancie’s Lemongrass Chicken
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 chopped fresh lemongrass (about 3 stalks, see Note)
1/4 cup chopped shallots or onion
1/3 cup chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon crushed dried red chili flakes
3 tablespoons chopped green onions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, soy sauce, and garlic, and stir to mix everything well. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes (or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day).In a small bowl, combine the Asian fish sauce, sugar, and salt, and stir well. In a blender or a small food processor, combine the lemongrass, shallots, and chicken broth or water. Blend to a fairly smooth puree, stopping to scrape down the sides and grind up any signifgant chunks of lemongrass.
Heat a large, deep skillet or a wok over high heat until very hot. Add oil and swirl to coat the pan. When a bit of green onion sizzles at once, scatter in the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Let it cook for about 1 minute, until browned on one side and fragrant. Toss well and let cook until browned, about 1 minute more.
Add the lemongrass puree and toss well. Add the fish sauce mixture, toss well, and then cook, tossing occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. Add the chili flakes and the green onions and toss well. Transfer to a serving plate, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve hot or warm. Serves 4 with rice and another vegetable dish or salad.
To prepare lemongrass, trim away the woody bottom end of 3 lemongrass stalks, to make a smooth base just under the bulge of the bulb. Cut away the grass top portion, leaving a base about three inches long. Halve each stalk lengthwise, and then cut them crosswise into thin pieces. Tumble the bits together, and then remove and discard any pieces which don’t have a purple tinge. (Purple color = flavor and aroma in lemongrass). You’ll need about 1/4 cup.
This recipe comes from Quick and Easy Vietnamese: 70 Everyday Recipes, by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2006).
Like chicken soup, chicken salads have a place of everyday honor in cuisines around the world. I adore the mayonnaise-dressed versions of my Southern childhood (and adulthood), but I’m in love with this Vietnamese take on the cool-chicken off-the-bone dish, with its ribbons of crisp raw cabbage, fish-sauce/pepper kick, and bright refreshing flavor-splashes of fresh herbs. Traditionally this dish includes rau ram, an herb treasured in the kitchens of Vietnam. You may find rau ram in Asian markets as well as at farmer’s markets, and if you like tending herbs, it’s a rewarding, low-maintenance one to grow at home. I’ve found plants at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market here in Piedmont North Carolina. Its long, spear-shaped leaves grow widely spaced on segmented stems, and it often sports two distinctive marks on its leaves; but not always, so consider that a clue but not an absolute when seeking rau ram. Here is how it is packaged and sold at a local Asian supermarket:
Here is rau ram, cooling its roots in a jar of water, and displayed on a plate to give you an idea of how the stalks and leaves look when freed from their plastic platter:
If you don’t find rau ram in time to make this salad, you can make a delicious version of the classic dish using fresh mint in place of rau ram. For more information on this aromatic and pleasingly astringent and bright tasting Vietnamese herb, visit food writer and cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen here:
Your cookbook shelf should already be home to copies of her two essential books:
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2006)
Asian Dumplings (Ten Speed Press, 2009)
But if it is not, fix that, preferably at your nearest actual, or most beloved online, independent bookseller’s place of business. And now, time for a lovely, tasty and pleasing chicken salad:
Nancie’s Chicken Salad, Vietnamese-Style, with Shredded Cabbage and Fresh Mint
This simple assembly of everyday ingredients produces a marvelously refreshing dish. The signature Vietnamese herb called rau ram is a perfect complement for the chicken and other seasonings, but fresh mint is lovely if you don’t have rau ram. If you want to prepare this ahead, and can be a little fussy about it, consider mixing the dressing and preparing the herbs, vegetables, chicken, and peanuts. Pretty close to serving time, combine everything in a big bowl, toss well, and enjoy.
1 pound boneless chicken breasts, or 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar, or freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup very thinly sliced onion
1/2 cup fresh mint, cilantro, or basil leaves
1/2 cup rau ram leaves (optional)
2 cups finely shredded green, savoy, or napa cabbage
3/4 shredded carrots
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted and salted peanuts (optional)
Put the chicken in a medium saucepan and add 2 to 3 cups of water, enough to cover the chicken by about 1/2 inch. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer, and cook until done, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, and pepper in a medium bowl, and stir to dissolve the sugar and mix everything well. Add the onion and toss to coat. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, until you are ready to complete the dish.
Transfer the meat to a place to cool, reserving the broth for another use, such as making soup or cooking rice. When the chicken is cool, tear it into long, thin shreds. Coarsely chop the mint and the rau ram, if you are using it. Add the shredded chicken, cabbage, carrots, mint, and rau ram to the bowl of onions and seasonings and toss to coat everything well. Mound the salad on a serving plate and top with chopped peanuts, if you are using them. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
This recipe comes from Quick & Easy Vietnamese by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books), Copyright 2006, all rights reserved.
If it weren’t for “Eating Asia” the food words-and-photography genius-team of Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman, we would still have a grand and tasty time in Taiwan, but we would not feast in nearly the frequent, magnificient, knowledgable, and varied way we do thanks to their work. Not only can you click your way to Asian food heaven by reading their extraordinary and extensive blogposts; you can also find their words/pictures on Zester Daily. Check them out once, and you will go back for more.
Here are two places you can find their work online:
This particular post led us to the amazing Taiwanese beef noodle soup master, whose small cafe is located back in a food-stall/market alley not far from Taipei’s main railroad station:
This feature by “Eating Asia” in the Asian Wall Street Journal led us to Astoria Coffee Shop, also featured in this post.
After this mighty fine meal, we headed back out to the main street, in search of a nearby pleasure shared by “Eating Asia”: Astoria Coffee Shop, a European-style coffee shop which serves up a proud pour of local culinary history along with the java and treats.