Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ingredient: LEMONGRASS

When I was small, I used to eat the onion grass that grew wild in my Pop Pop’s back yard. Let’s just say my parents were not happy when they saw me picking up clumps of green weeds and sticking them in my mouth. Onion grass is totally edible and can even be used like chives, but I can understand my parent’s concern. They couldn’t be sure I wasn’t eating regular grass, which even my dog only does when he’s sick. But onion grass is just one of multiple species of grass that can be used for more than just your lawn. I’m not talking about making special brownies, either.

Lemongrass is a prime example. Native to the Philippines, but a fan of any temperate to tropical climate, this plant grows in long, light green stalks. I’ve always associated lemongrass with Thai food because when I was growing up the local Thai restaurant was named Lemongrass (and was probably owned by Canadians. Similarly Chinese food always makes me think of baby buddhas.) But the truth is that lemongrass is not only used in Southeast Asian cuisine; it features in many African, Caribbean, and Central American dishes as well. Epicurious even has a recipe for leek matzo balls in lemongrass consommé, though I think that’s going too far.

This plant’s citrusy flavor is a great compliment to spicy curries, coconut milk, and ginger. Lemongrass is the base for a popular soft drink in the Philippines. I’d love to try a lemongrass soft drink, and in fact Jarritos should be all over that, but since the Philippines is unfortunately not on my current vacation radar, I’ve been sampling some lemongrass tea. Not only does it taste light and refreshing, but it’s supposed to calm me and clear my nasal passages. Every cup is apparently detoxing my liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder and digestive tract. That seems like one hard-working cup of tea. However it has been scientifically proven that Lemongrass has antifungal properties and strong cancer fighting abilities, so put on that kettle.

But my favorite thing about lemongrass? It actually has nothing to do with gastronomy or health. Lemongrass is used to make citronella candles, that indispensable summertime staple which repels my nemesis: the mosquito.

Pork and Lemongrass Meatballs in Lettuce Cups

I was drawn to this recipe for two reasons. The first is that I love meatballs. Having been a vegetarian for most of my life, I’m still not a fan of a big, bleeding piece of steak or even a nice breast of chicken. I prefer my meat mixed with lots of flavors and spices, and that’s why meatballs and sausages are at the top of my list. And who doesn’t love the soft, juicy texture of a perfectly cooked meatball? Who doesn't have fun rolling them into cute little spheres? Well, I sure as heck do, and I'm particularly inspired after having tried the best meatballs in New York City.

The second reason I wanted to make this recipe is that I love eating things out of a lettuce cup. My reasoning is about 60-40 in favor of the pure novelty factor, but I do like the crunchy, clean taste of lettuce as well as any dish that lets me play with my food at the table.

This recipe is from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit, and though I dog-eared the page I’ll admit that I thought, “I’m not actually going to make this. When am I ever going to buy lemongrass?” But as has been a trend of late, I find that most ingredients are easily found if I just decide to look for them. And thus began my first foray into cooking with lemongrass. You can buy lemongrass already chopped, in a jar, or in stalks, to chop yourself, and I did both. I wanted to attack the plant myself, but it’s a hubristic cook who doesn’t have a plan B. I ended up using a bit of both for the sake of comparison. My verdict? The fresh plant has more flavor, certainly, but if time and or laziness prompts you to use the jar, don’t sweat it. (Until you sweat it, and shoo the skeeters away.)


1 pound ground pork
1 lemongrass stalk, bottom 5 inches only, minced*
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

For Dipping Sauce:

1 lemongrass stalk, minced*
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons coarsely grated carrot
1 ½ tablespoons golden brown sugar
2 teaspoons minced green Thai chile (serrano chile or other hot chili works too)

For Assembly:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 head of butter lettuce, leaves separated
1 small persian cucumber, thinly sliced


In a food processor, pulse together all ingredients for meatballs except for pork until they have become smooth and like a paste. Add in pork and pulse until blended. Roll the meat mixture into 1 inch balls, making aprox 24 meatballs. Put meatballs on a baking sheet and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour.

Make Dipping Sauce:

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients for sauce until sugar has dissolved and they are well combined.

For Assembly:

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan (as many as can fit, don't overcrowd). Cook, turning occasionally, until cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Serve meatballs alongside dipping sauce, a stack of butter lettuce leaves, and a bowl of the cucumber slices. To eat, take a lettuce leaf, fill with a few slices of cucumber and two or so meatballs, drizzle with dipping sauce, close the leaf and dig in.

the set-up

the take down

*to mince a lemongrass stalk, directions taken from wh foods: Cut off green tops down to white fleshy part. They are not edible. Cut off root. Peel away outer layers until you reach the tender part of the lemongrass. Slice very thinly across the stalk. Continue to chop with chef's knife until very fine.

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