Monday, March 30, 2009

At Market....Lemongrass

I realize that many of you don't have the opportunity to buy fresh lemongrass at your farmers' market. But if you do, snap it up. It lasts for about two weeks in your refrigerator, if it is well wrapped in plastic. If you have any left over, it can be frozen in a thick zip-top bag for up to six months. Lemongrass has a light and refreshing lemony essence, but is much milder than lemon zest. It loses its oomph soon after it is cut, so it is best to use it fresh. In fact, don't even bother with the dried bottled stuff. It will give your food the flavor and texture of a grass beach mat. Yes, I know from experience. When you see it in the market, it is tall and has a light green outer layer, which is quite tough and fibrous and needs to be removed before using. You can break off a little bit, rub it between your fingers and smell it if you need confirmation that it is indeed lemongrass. On the bottom is a pale green bulb, much like a green onion. Peel the outer few layers away and cut off the green tops, leaving only about 4 inches of the bulb at the bottom. That is the part you will use in your cooking. Lemongrass is usually finely minced for recipes because it can be slightly tough. If you cannot find it at the market, you can add a pinch of lemon zest, or nothing at all. Most recipes that call for lemongrass are from South East Asia and are strongly flavored enough that they can stand on their own.

A few years ago, my cousin and her boyfriend took a whole year off from work to travel around the world. I personally thought they were nuts. But when her photo albums started appearing in my email inbox, complete with detailed captions of all they were seeing, eating and even smelling, I must admit that I envied her a little bit. This was the trip of a lifetime, for sure, and it took real courage to do something like that. She definitely opened my eyes to the beauty and the heartache of the many places she visited, several of which were well off the beaten path. When her emails arrived, we would all gather around the computer and ooh and aah at the amazing photographs she was sending. The kids loved the pictures of the animals and children they encountered along the way....but I was always fascinated by her descriptions of the food.

Though I have never been to Malaysia, I imagine it to be balmy and hot, tropical and richly colored, which is exactly how I would describe the Malaysian curry that I sometimes make. I prefer to travel with my my own kitchen, but perhaps some day I will have to guts to venture out to some of the more exotic destinations that my palate enjoys. For now, I can live vicariously through my cousin's wanderlust. And it's high time she got the heck out of dodge--I'm ready for her next adventure.

Malaysian Chicken Curry
adapted from Gourmet Cookbook

This recipe looks and tastes much more complicated than it is to actually prepare. It is rich, but only mildly spicy...and yes, my kids ate it....well at least 2 of them did!

6 boneless, skin-on chicken breasts (skinless is okay too...just cook it for 5 min. less)
2 T vegetable oil
1 1/2 C chopped shallot (about 6 large) or red onion (1 large)
2 stalks of lemongrass, chopped (peeled, lower 4 inches -light green part only)
1 1 inch segment of ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 T water
2 T curry powder
1 can coconut milk (lite is fine)
1 t salt
1 3 inch cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 clove
1 jalapeno pepper, stem end intact but cut in quarters lengthwise (leave whole)

Place shallot, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and water in a food processor (a small one is fine). Pulse until a nearly smooth puree is formed. Set aside. In a large, heavy bottomed skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. When hot, but not smoking, brown chicken, in two batches, skin side down first....about 5 minutes total. Remove to a plate. Reduce heat to medium low and add shallot puree. Saute for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add curry powder and stir for one minute more. Add coconut milk, and whisk to combine, then add remaining ingredients. Return chicken to the pan, cover and simmer for about 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Taste for seasonings and serve over rice, garnished with cilantro.

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