Table Talk: A twist of lemongrass

Lawrence Pierce
Thai Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemongrass blends the soothing flavors of lemongrass and coconut milk with the bite of chilies. Chicken, bok choy, carrots and mushrooms give body to the flavorful broth.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last May, I had a chance to leisurely explore a well-stocked nursery. The nursery had a selection of less common plants -- not just your garden-variety impatiens and petunias. The herb section was particularly intriguing. I picked up a little pot of lemongrass and a curry plant, thinking it would be fun to try them out in Asian, and especially Thai, recipes. They both grew robustly in their pots through the summer. Very robustly. I'm glad I didn't plant them in the ground because lemongrass, it turns out, can be invasive. Every time I watered the curry plant with its tiny gray needle-shaped leaves, its distinctive aroma wafted up, causing my mouth to water in anticipation of curry dishes. As I looked for recipes using fresh curry, I was disconcerted to see the leaves pictured were both green and larger. It turns out that my curry plant is named for its aroma and appearance and is not a culinary herb. The plant identification tag probably gave that information, had I bothered to read it before transplanting it. Also, it turns out that the green curry leaves don't really have a curry taste. They add a delicate lemony flavor to dishes instead. Curry powder is ground from a variety of toasted spices such as cumin, turmeric, coriander, mustard, ginger, garlic, chilies, cloves and salt.
The lemongrass plant offered better culinary options. Standing about 3-feet tall, the unprepossessing plant resembles a stand of, well, grass. Most of the lemon flavor is concentrated in the bottom 5 inches of the stock. If you use lemongrass, which is available in the fresh herb section of some grocery stores, in recipes, cut lemongrass at the base and trim off the top leaves, leaving about 4 inches of the stalk. If you're not cutting it fresh, you'll need to trim the top and base of the stalks because they are likely to have dried out slightly. To use in teas, broths and soups, crush the stalks with the side of a knife to release aromatic oils, then cut into 1-inch pieces and add to recipe. Remove the pieces before eating, as they tend to be woody. For use in marinades, stir-fries, salads, spice rubs and curry pastes, trim the top and base of the stalks, then peel off any dry or tough outer layers. Finely chop or mince and brown with other aromatics in the recipe for the strongest flavor. I decided to use the first of my lemongrass in Thai Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemongrass. The delicate combination of lemongrass and coconut milk married well with chicken. It was a soothing dish on a cold day. Reach Julie Robinson at or 304-348-1230. Thai Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemongrass Serves 2 to 3 6 ounces egg noodles 6 cups chicken stock 1 to 2 stalks fresh lemongrass, minced, OR 4 tablespoons lemongrass paste 1 pound bone-in chicken breast or thigh
3 cloves garlic, minced 1 thumb-sized piece ginger, shredded 1 red or green hot chili, sliced 1 large carrot, julienned 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce 2 to 3 cups baby bok choy chopped 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice 1/2 cup coconut milk 1/3 cup fresh cilantro Optional extra vegetables: sliced mushrooms and/or broccoli segments PREPARE noodles according to instructions on package. Drain and rinse with cold water to keep from sticking. Set aside. BRING stock to a boil in a large soup pot. Add prepared lemongrass and the chicken. Boil gently over medium-high heat 3 to 4 minutes. REDUCE to medium heat and add the garlic, ginger, chili and carrot. If adding mushrooms, add them now. Simmer 2 to 3 more minutes. ADD the oyster sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar and broccoli, if using. Continue simmering the soup 2 to 3 more minutes. ADD chopped baby bok choy. Stir and simmer 30 seconds. REMOVE chicken, cool slightly, and remove meat from skin and bones. REDUCE heat to low. Add the coconut milk and lime juice, stirring well to incorporate. MOUND a generous amount of the cooked noodles in each bowl. Ladle hot soup over them and top with fresh cilantro. Serve with chili sauce on the side, for those who prefer spicier foods. Pork and Lemongrass Meatballs in Lettuce Cups Meatballs 1 pound ground pork 1 lemongrass stalk, bottom 5 inches only, smashed with rolling pin, then minced 1/4 cup chopped shallots 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro 2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 garlic cloves, chopped 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper Dipping sauce 1 lemongrass stalk 1/4 cup fresh lime juice 1/4 cup fish sauce 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro 2 tablespoons coarsely grated carrot 4 teaspoons (packed) golden brown sugar 2 teaspoons minced green Thai chili or serrano chili with seeds 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 head of butter lettuce, leaves separated 1 small English cucumber, thinly sliced CHILL pork in freezer while making lemongrass paste. COMBINE lemongrass, 1/2 teaspoon salt, shallots, cilantro, fish sauce, garlic, vegetable oil, sugar and white pepper in processor; pulse until paste forms. Add chilled pork; pulse to blend. SHAPE into 24 balls, each about 1 tablespoonful. Place on rimmed baking sheet. Cover; chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day. Dipping Sauce CUT bottom 3 inches from lemongrass. Smash with rolling pin, then mince. Measure 1 tablespoon of lemongrass and place in small bowl. Reserve the rest for another use. Add lime juice, fish sauce, cilantro, carrot, sugar and chili to bowl; whisk until sugar dissolves. HEAT oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs; brown until cooked through, turning occasionally, about 15 minutes. Transfer to one side of a large platter. ARRANGE lettuce leaves and cucumber on platter with meatballs. Place meatballs in leaves, garnish with cucumber, and drizzle dipping sauce over. Source: Lemongrass Chicken 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon garlic, minced 2 tablespoons ginger, grated 2 sticks lemongrass, white part only, very finely chopped 2 spring onions, finely chopped green and white 3 red chilies, chopped 1 tablespoon brown sugar 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 lime, cut into wedges Fresh cilantro TRIM any excess fat from the thigh sections. COMBINE salt, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, spring onions, chilies, brown sugar and oil in a plastic zipper bag. ADD chicken to bag and marinate for 10 minutes. HEAT grill to medium high temperature. GRILL the chicken for about 10 minutes. Turn and grill until thoroughly cooked.      
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