Fragrant, floral lemon grass is a staple of Southeast Asian cooking, adding bright, citrusy flavor to curries, grilled meats and salads, as well as sauces and soups, such as Thailand’s tom yum gai.
Though this tropical plant contains no actual citrus, it boasts a lush lemony scent, as well as a minty herbaceousness, subtly tinged with a gingery bite. Its appearance is as distinctive as its aroma: a slender, pale yellow-green fibrous stalk that starts as a slightly bulbous base and tapers upward to long, green grassy blades.
Once hard to obtain in U.S. supermarkets, lemon grass now is widely available, typically found in the produce section of most grocery stores. Look for stalks with a firm texture, good fragrance and supple leaves that haven’t dried out.
To use lemon grass, trim the base and the upper part of the stalk so only 4 to 6 inches of the bottom remain, then remove the dry outer leaves. The stalks can be simmered whole (then discarded before serving the dish). But be sure to bruise the stalks first to release their essential oils. A meat mallet or rolling pin works well.
Lemon grass also can be chopped finely with a sharp knife, pounded to a paste using a mortar and pestle or pureed in a blender. Pureed lemon grass sold in tubes lacks the vibrancy of fresh, but it can be used in a pinch.