This past Sunday, as a huge snowstorm readied itself for a dramatic evening display (28 inches by the next day), I had the great pleasure of teaching a session of this winter’s subscription series class, All Things Lemongrass, in my kitchen, and then sitting down with my enthusiastic students to sip lemongrass-ginger green tea, and eat the two lemongrass-infused soups, three versions of lemongrass chicken, lemongrass-coconut rice, steamed Asian greens with a soy-lemongrass sauce, and lemongrass pots de crème. What fun and how delicious!
I’m looking forward to adding classes to this summer’s offerings (stay tuned for the new list) and to teaching this one frequently. But first, I’m heading down into the basement today to plant lemongrass. Yes, here in Vermont. A dozen plants or so. And then I’ll come back up to the kitchen and make some more delicious lemongrass-coconut chicken soup using broth I made and froze last fall.
I’m never without lemongrass in my kitchen. Although I’m primarily inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, I do need a Southeast Asian fix at least once a week. As an essential flavor of that region, lemongrass makes its way through many of our meals. I use the light lemony herb in soups, chicken, fish dishes; in marinades and pastes like Eating Well’s Thai lime and Lemongrass Marinade; as grilling skewers; in desserts such as lemongrass pots de crème; in tisanes and syrups. People think I am adventurous in the kitchen; I think I’m sensible by planting my favorite flavors.
When I spot pale stalks in the market going for nearly $20 a pound, I feel rather pleased with myself. I don’t need to buy lemongrass. Nope, not even here, halfway across the world from where it originates. Perhaps it seems all upside down to grow it in Vermont, but then again I also happily grow lavender, eggplants, tomatillos, artichokes, figs and all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs not associated with these cold climes. I’m determined to use them, I want them fresh, and there’s such satisfaction in pulling a stalk of lemongrass out of its grassy clump right before I need it in the kitchen. I’m sure it tastes different from the same plant grown in a Thai garden–our soil and climate conditions make that inevitable–even so, I’ve never tasted store-bought lemongrass that can rival what comes straight from the garden.
Lemongrass grows easily as an annual herb, started from seed right about now, or as transplants found at garden centers. There are two varieties, East Indian and West Indian; the first is what you get in seed packets, and the second what you buy at the nursery. Supremely grassy, the Eastern cultivar sends out lots of thin leaf blades. The stalks do not, in my experience, swell into fat bulbs. The Western variety seems to grow faster, taller, with much thicker bulbs, the kind you see on green grocers’ shelves. I grow both kinds–Eastern for infusions and broths, Western for recipes calling for the chopped tender core of the stalk. I love the herb so much that I grow it in patio pots, tuck it into empty corners of the garden beds and all through the grass garden. It provides visual as well as culinary interest–a double winner!
So here I go to dream of light summer curries and iced lemongrass teas as I plant the seeds and wait a couple of weeks for them to surface. They take their time, all through the season, but I’ll wait for them, gladly.