Spice: Lemon Grass
Fresh Lemon Grass is a common ingredient in many Southeast Asian culinary preparations and is most commonly ground with other ingredients to make curry pastes and condiments. My own personal experience with the spice is that, if used with a heavy hand, it can quickly overwhelm a dish with an overly perfume-like citronella quality. However, when carefully balanced with other aromatics, it can be very pleasant.
Until just a few days before writing this post, I had only come across the fresh variety of lemon grass while travelling and it was always impractical to buy it. As a result, my own kitchen experiments thus far have been limited to dried sorts, which are all but useless, and some commercially brine-pickled stems that left me wanting the real thing. Luckily, our local store, Arctic Ventures, which is an amazing resource for us poor deprived Northerners, came through again with something new the other day and I now have the chance to experiment with the genuine article…
The stalks of the ‘grass’ when just purchased have an appearance something between a scallion, or slender leek, and a reed. The tops and outer skins, as they dry, become very reed-like, and in some ways are reminiscent of corn husks, but the lower end of the plant is noticeably more tender as you approach the ‘bulb’ at the base.
Once the outer layers are peeled away (much the same way one does with scallions), the inner layers are considerable softer but still firmer and more woody than with leeks or green onions. On further cutting and sectioning, you can see that the scallion-like structure is even more apparent. This particular plant even has a rather pretty violet color to some of the layers that contrasts lightly with the pale jade of the rest of the stem.
Aroma and taste
I was not able to detect much of a smell before peeling the stalks but, once having stripped away just the very first layer, the rich aroma was immediately apparent. The smell is definitely lemon-like but it is more of what I would call air-freshener lemon, as it is a highly aromatic and perfume like citrus scent that can be quite overpowering in contrast to the comparatively delicate essence of real lemons.
On tasting a small segment of the stem, the first sensation is of a surprising sweetness that is very much like sugar cane. This is followed by a brief grassy taste, rather like fresh, unripe corn, and then immediately the same aromatic citrusy perfume overwhelms everything else. The sensory experience is, on the whole, much like that of Citronella leaves (indeed, there is an extract of lemongrass called citronella oil), so though the English name suggests something lemon-like, the qualities are actually quite a bit different.
The texture, I should note, is really quite woody and not unlike chewing on corn husks. Grinding this for spice pastes, which will be my primary use for this batch, will, I suspect be quite a chore in itself and I am thinking that, beyond that, using the stem layers in any other dishes will likely only work where there is a fairly lengthy cooking in liquid to break down the considerably fibrous quality of the plant.
As I am not going to be using the lemongrass stalks right away (and since I will only be using a very little at a time), I decided to store the trimmed stalks in brine. In the picture above, you can see the cut sections submerged in a mixture of a half-pint or so water and a tablespoon of non-iodized salt. Ina few days, I will be using some one or two of the pieces in a type of Malaysian-style curry paste and I will post the results of that experiment, and all future uses, in due course…