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Ask most people to define herbs and they will tell you they are the green leaves of plants that are used for cooking. Some might even add that herbs have medicinal properties. They might mention as examples: basil, thyme and rosemary. Until recently I would have said the same, possibly adding borage, nasturtiums, and other edible flowers to the list. But having been neighbors to a Thai restaurant for the past nine months where ingredients such as tamarind pods, galangal, and star anise are integral to the menu, I began to wonder about such a narrow definition.
Leslie Bremness sheds some light on this question in her hand book on herbs. She divides plants into useful (herbs) and non-useful plants. This includes roots, barks, leaves, and flowers: as long as it has some compound that people find of use. So herbs are defined by the culture, rather than botany. Thus what are herbs to a person in a small town in North Dakota would be different from those used by a shaman in the Amazon jungle. And what I'm learning from next door, lemon grass is definitely on the useful list.
Until recently, lemon grass, or Takrai as it is known in Thailand, was primarily grown in India, Indonesia, and South East Asia. But as the popularity of Thai cuisine grows around the world, the demand for it has increased. It is now grown in Florida and California as well. Lemon grass has an intriguing, lemony perfume without the bite that lemons can add to a dish. The taste is refreshing and light, with a hint of ginger. These qualities make it blend well with garlic, chiles, and cilantro -- ingredients common to the cuisines of Indonesia and Thailand. It is most often used in curries, marinades, stews, and seafood soups as it needs liquids to bring out its essential oils. Its citrus taste helps to lighten some of the richer tasting dishes. Lemon grass is also used as the basis of a popular drink in the tropics, and as a tea.
Lemon grass can be used either fresh, dried or powdered. The fresh stalks can be found in Asian markets and now in many health food markets. Be sure to buy ones that have plump bases and long, blade-like green leaves: these will be the freshest ones. When using it fresh, strip off the tough outer leaves and cut off the bottom root portion. Slice the bulbous end into rings about 1/4" in size on a diagonal. Cut into longer strips if you are not going to strain your dish so you can remove these course pieces before serving. Bruise the pieces before adding to release the flavors. Lemon grass freezes well which is a good thing, since it is usually sold in large bundles, far more than I can use at once. It can be stored whole in the refrigerator in plastic for up to two weeks, but usually I'll just go ahead and prep it at the moment and place it in a plastic bag in the freezer. It holds well for up to five months. If using dried lemon grass, soak in hot water to reconstitute. The powder, called sejeh, is mostly added to curry pastes and used in beverages.
Lemon grass has been used for centuries in Indonesia and Malaysia by herbalists and in Ayurvedic herbalism. It is used in teas to combat depression and bad moods, fight fever and as well as nervous and digestive disorders. Studies show that lemon grass has antibacterial and antifungal properties. The oil is used to cleanse oily skin, and in aromatherapy it is used as a relaxant. Valued for its exotic citrus fragrance, it is commercially used in soaps, perfumes and as an ingredient in sachets.
When buying lemon grass fresh, be sure to check the bases to see if there are any vestiges of roots. If so, you have a bonus -- you can take this stalk and start your own lemon grass plant. Place the root end in water with a bit of plant food and wait until the roots develop. Plant in an area that gets full sun but is protected from the wind. Being a native of the tropics, lemon grass prefers a sandy soil and plenty of moisture. It is a member of the grass family (Gramineae) and is considered a tender perennial. Outside of the tropics it is treated as an annual, since it is sensitive to frost. It grows well in pots (they prefer a lot of room). This way, you can transfer the pots to a green house over the winter in colder areas. Like most grasses, lemon grass is a quick grower, getting up to 6' tall under ideal conditions: outside the tropics it will grow to about 3'. It will even grow indoors with sufficient light and heat.
I find that lemon grass, with its delicate, long green leaves and ivory bases, adds an attractive contrast to the other plants in my herb garden. Its summertime flowers are green clusters tinged with red on the end of a curving stalk. Unfortunately, these are usually seen only in its native lands where conditions are ideal. As the lemon grass grows, it sends out new stalks from the central base. Once these are about 2 1/2" long and 3/4" wide at the base, they are ready to use. To harvest from your plant, just cut off the stalks you need leaving the rest to continue to grow -- a bit of the tropics in your own back yard.
Mussels with Lemon Grass
This is a light and flavorful recipe that blends elements of the far east with those of Europe. Good served either as a first course for 8, or dinner for 4.
2 TBLS olive oil
3 plump lemon grass
1/2 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
3/4 cup white wine
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
2 lbs Prince Edward Island mussels, beards removed
salt and pepper to taste
Put the oil in a stainless steel pot large enough to hold all the ingredients. Turn the heat to medium. Strip the course, dry outer leaves from the lemon grass. Cut off the base where the root begins and discard. Cut the bulb into rings about 1/4 thick. Only go up about 4 or 5 inches, where the bulb stays white and tender.
When the oil is hot add the lemon grass and stir for a minute. This helps to release the flavorful oils. Add the onions and cook over medium until they begin to turn golden, approximately three minutes. Add the garlic, white wine, pepper flakes and cilantro, and continue to cook 2 more minutes to blend flavors. Add the mussels to the pot, cover with a lid, and turn up the heat to high. This will steam the mussels open.
Check in a few minutes to see if the majority of mussels have opened. If so, ladle them into serving dishes, being sure to discard any that have not opened as they are unsafe to eat. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper if necessary. Strain the broth onto the mussels and serve at once.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.