I've never quite understood why lemongrass isn't more widely popular in Western cuisines. A key ingredient in Southeast Asian cookery, from Vietnamese through Cambodian and Laotian to Thai, this fragrant herb imparts a lovely lemony perfume; and merely substituting lemon or lime juice can't fully replicate its mellow but tangy complexity.
But it's still far from a common ingredient in most English-speaking kitchens, perhaps because it's hard to find outside ethnic groceries and specialty stores, and it doesn't look all that appetizing on first glance: Think of a somewhat desiccated stalk that looks a bit like a dried-up green onion and is just tough enough to require a serious effort to cut with a sharp knife.
But solve its simple mysteries, and you've added a seriously good herb to your collection, and chances are you'll soon start thinking of interesting new ways to use it in unexpected places. Lemongrass ice cream, anyone?
Lemongrass is the Ingredient of the Month for June in our online FoodLovers Discussion Group. After putting together this delicious, Vietnamese-inspired lemongrass duck dish over lemongrass rice, I'm sorry it took me this long to get to it. Here's the procedure ... you could easily substitute chicken or pork for the duck; maybe even tofu.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
FOR THE DUCK
FOR THE RICE
1. Trim the thick layer of skin and fat from the duck breast and discard it (or render the fat and save it as a wonderful, if dangerously unhealthy, sauteeing medium). Cut the lean meat into chopsticks-size bites.
2. Peel the tough outer skin from two stalks of lemongrass, and cut the tender white portion into very thin slices. Mash them in a mortar and pestle with a little salt and fresh lime juice until they form a paste. Stir in the rest of the juice of your half-lime, the soy sauce, nam pla and hot sauce to taste, and use this combination to marinate the duck for 30 minutes or so, while you make the rice.
3. Peel the onion and cut it into thin strands. Peel the tough outer skin from two more stalks of lemongrass, but leave them whole. Whack them a couple of times with the side of a chef's knife or cleaver, a procedure that seems to help release some of their aromatic juices. Proceed as if you were making a pilaf: Heat the peanut oil in a saucepan until it sizzles, then put in the onions and the pieces of lemongrass and stir-fry until the onions are translucent but not yet browning and the lemongrass is aromatic. Stir in the rice and cook for a moment or two, then add the broth, the optional lemongrass sauce, and salt to taste. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover tightly, and simmer until the rice is tender and has absorbed all the liquid. Discard the lemongrass pieces and keep the rice warm.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil in a skillet or wok and stir-fry the duck pieces, with their marinade, until they are just cooked through. Serve atop the rice in a large bowl, garnished with chopped cilantro.
WINE MATCH: Normally I like a dry, earthy red wine with duck, perhaps a Burgundy, Rhone red or Northern Italian red. The lemongrass and citrus characters of this dish, though, seemed to call for a dry but full-bodied white, and a Northeastern Italian white blend from the Veneto - a Masi 2001 Garganega-Sauvignon Blanc blend - went very well.
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I'm just absolutely crazy about fresh figs - purple Mission or green, I'll take them either way - and gleefully eat them like candy when they're in season, said season being all too short.
For a 10-second tip, though, here's a ridiculously easy way to turn the already delicious fig into one of the best (and easiest) desserts there is: Cut your fig in half, lengthwise. Dollop a spoonful of mascarpone cheese on the cut side of each half. Eat. I'll bet you can't stop with just one!
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Thursday, June 22, 2006
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