Lemongrass is a stalky plant with a lemony scent that grows in many tropical climates, most notably in Southeast-Asia. A common ingredient in Thai cooking, lemongrass provides a zesty lemon flavor and aroma to many Thai dishes. Lemon juice (or lime) may be substituted for lemongrass in a pinch, but citrus fruits will not be able to fully replicate its particular qualities.
Lemongrass is also thought to have numerous health benefits, especially when used in combination with other Thai spices such as garlic, fresh chillies, and coriander. In fact, scientists are now studying Thailand’s favorite soup: Tom Yum Kung, which contains all of these herbs and spices, with lemongrass as the key player. Tom Yum is thought to be capable of combatting colds, flus, and even some cancers.
When purchasing lemongrass, look for firm stalks (not soft or rubbery, which means it’s too old). Lower stalk should be pale yellow (almost white) in color, while upper stalks are green (do not purchase if outer leaves are crusty or brown). Usually fresh lemongrass is sold in groupings of 3-4 stalks, secured with an elastic band. Stalks are approximately 1 foot long (or more). Look for fresh lemongrass at your local grocery store or Asian market. If you can’t find it with the fresh produce, check the freezer section – lemongrass stalks are also sold in frozen packets.
Note that prepared, ready-to-use lemongrass can also be purchased – look for it in tubs in the freezer section of your local Asian/Chinese grocery store.
To use fresh lemongrass, always cut off the lower bulb and remove tough, outer leaves. The main stalk (the yellow section) is mainly what is used in Thai cooking, although I always reserve the upper, green “stem” and add this to my soups and curries for extra flavor.
From here, you have 2 options. The first is the easier of the two. Choose this option if you are in a hurry, or if you do not own a food processor or pestle & mortar. Simply cut the yellow stalk into 2-3 inch lengths. Then “bruise” these sections by bending them several times. Add them to your soup or curry. You can also create superficial cuts along these sections with your knife, which will help release the lemon flavor. When serving, remove the lemongrass pieces, or ask your guests to set them aside as they eat.
The second option is to slice the lemongrass. In this case, we are preparing the lemongrass to be consumed, adding fiber, nutrients, and more flavor to the dish. You will need a very sharp knife, as the stalk is quite firm. Cut the yellow section of stalk into thin slices and place these in a food processor. Process well. Or, pound the slices with a pestle & mortar until softened and fragrant. Now add this prepared lemongrass to your Thai recipe.
Note that lemongrass is extremely fibrous and a little “stringy” (more like threads, actually). For this reason, be sure to cook your Thai dish thoroughly. If you are making a soup, for example, boil the lemongrass for at least 5-10 minutes in the broth in order for it to soften adequately.
Thai Green Curry Chicken
This recipe features chunks of tender chicken simmered in a homemade green curry sauce along with healthy vegetables (zucchini and red bell pepper). The result is a gourmet-style Thai green curry that is very aromatic and beautiful to serve (great for entertaining!). The key to good green curry is in not only using the right ingredients, but knowing when to add them. Because this curry is made the same as in Thailand (on your stovetop), I recommend using only smaller pieces or cuts of chicken, allowing for faster cooking and the freshest possible taste.
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
* SERVES 2-3
* 1 to 1.5 lbs. (about 0.7 kg) boneless chicken thigh or breast, cut into chunks
* 4 kaffir lime leaves (can be purchased frozen at most Asian food stores)
* a generous handful of fresh basil
* 1 can coconut milk
* 1 red bell pepper, de-seeded and cut into chunks
* 1 zucchini, sliced lengthwise several times, then cut into chunks
* 2 Tbsp. oil for stir-frying
* GREEN CURRY PASTE:
* 4 small green Thai chilies, OR substitute 1 to 2 jalapeno peppers
* 1/4 cup shallot OR purple onion, diced
* 4 cloves garlic, minced
* 1 thumb-size piece galangal OR ginger, grated
* 1 stalk lemongrass, sliced thinly OR 3 Tbsp. frozen prepared lemongrass
* 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
* 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
* 1 tsp. shrimp paste
* 1 cup fresh coriander/cilantro leaves and stems, chopped
* 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper (can be purchased at some supermarkets, OR at Asian food stores)
* 3 Tbsp. fish sauce
* 1 tsp. brown sugar
* 2 Tbsp. lime juice
1. Prepare the chicken and chop the bell pepper and zucchini.
2. Place all the “green curry paste” ingredients together in a food processor. Blitz to a paste. If necessary, add a few Tbsp. of the coconut milk to help blend ingredients. Set aside.
3. Prepare the lime leaves by tearing the leaf away from either side of the stem. Discard the central stem. Then, using scissors, cut leaves into thin strips. Set aside.
4. Warm a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl around, then add the green curry paste.
5. Stir-fry briefly to release the fragrance (30 seconds to 1 minute), then add 3/4 of the coconut milk, reserving 2-3 Tbsp. per serving portion for later.
6. Add the chicken, stirring to incorporate. When the curry sauce comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium or medium-low, until you get a nice simmer.
7. Cover and allow to simmer 3-5 more minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Stir occasionally.
8. Add the red bell pepper and zucchini, plus the strips of lime leaf, stirring well to incorporate. Simmer another 2-3 minutes, or until vegetables are softened but still firm and colorful.
9. Do a taste-test for salt, adding 1-2 Tbsp. fish sauce if not salty enough. If you’d prefer a sweeter curry, add a little more sugar. If too salty, add a squeeze of lime or lemon juice. If too spicy, add more coconut milk. Note that this curry should be a balance of salty, spicy, sweet and sour, plus bitter (the bitter is found in the fresh basil garnish).
10. Serve this curry in bowls with rice served separately, allowing guests to add their own. Top each portion with fresh basil, then drizzle over 2-3 Tbsp. coconut milk.