My Southeast Asian Summer: lemony herbs

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Some of the most delightful herbs used in Southeast Asia have a strong, clean citrus scent. Here we’ll consider lemongrass and lemon basil, along with a Western taste-alike, lemon verbena.  My love affair with the piquant and flavorful food of Southeast Asia continues, and I’m putting more and more thought into which herbs and roots to buy and which to grow. There’s an excellent reason to grow rather than buy: these herbs are almost never available organically grown. My experiments are aimed at seeing which ones I can grow in useful quantities without a greenhouse or other specialized setting.

They are very delicious with fish and seafood. For the Lemon Shrimp above, go to the very end of the post, after the growing info.
For more about growing and using the lemony herbs, click here.
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General notes on Southeast Asian herbs: many if not most of these plants are used to growing among other plants in a humid hazy climate, and don’t do well sitting by themselves in our hot desert sun. I grow them in a cluster under the east side of a ramada, so they get full sun in the morning, partial shade from noon to about 2, and full shade after that. They’re grouped closely together and watered daily. If you want them to be organic, remember to use organic potting soil. You can spot rau ram, wild betel leaf, and turmeric leaf in the picture; I’ll be discussing them in future posts. Some of these plants are very ornamental, but none of them will look like much if you’re always pulling bits off them for cooking, so resign yourself to the fact that they are for eating, not for looks.

Lemongrass is ubiquitous throughout Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cuisines.  It’s the tall grassy plant toward the right in the photo above. In hot weather, lemongrass that you buy at the store will root in a glass of water, often within a week. I bought some for culinary purposes, kept it in a jar of water on the counter, and when I was ready to use the stalks, I would cut off the rooted stumps and stick them in a pot. This is a good way to have your cake and eat it too. If the weather is good and hot and they’r protected from full sun, green shoots will spring out of the stump within another week or two. Above you can see two pots of lemongrass, one about three months old and one a month old (the red pot in front.) I estimate that it might take 6-9 months to reach best eating size. I’m starting a pot every month so that, with a little luck, I’ll be able to generate a steady supply.

Lemon basil isn’t shown in the picture. It’s very easy to grow and seeds itself around like a weed. I’ve found it so useful that I’ll try keeping mine indoors this winter instead of letting it die down and reseed. Buy a packet of seed, plant it, and water. It’s really that simple.

I’ve always grown lemon verbena, shown below, in quantity for the pleasure of crushing a leaf and inhaling the clean and potent scent, but I never found a culinary use for it until I recently learned that the estimable Herbfarm chef, Jerry Traunfeld, uses it as an easily grown substitute for lemongrass. I find that this substitution only works really well in situations where the lemongrass is added toward the end of cooking or before quick cooking. I don’t think it works well in slow-cooked curries and lons. However, in dishes where its use is appropriate, the lemon verbena adds a fascinating rich hint of vanilla to the sharp lemon flavor. It’s very tasty indeed in the recipe below. Just put a lemon verbena plant in a pot and stand back. You can get it at several local nurseries and by mail from any herb supplier. Be sure to cut off the flower stems as they appear. It winters over in warmer areas of zone 7, so I’ll leave one plant outside in a sheltered spot and see how it does.
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Lemon Shrimp: This has a delicate flavor that respects the freshness of very good shrimp.
1 pound shrimp See the Seafood Watch page for environmentally better choices, and keep all shrimp an occasional treat, not a staple.) Use a size between 20 and 30 per pound, not larger.
1 stalk lemongrass
1″X2″ chunk of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1/2″ X 1″ chunk of fresh turmeric, peeled and finely chopped.
2 thin (1/8 inch) slices galangal, peeled and finely chopped (optional)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons Viet or Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar or light brown sugar
about a cup of tender young green beans, cut in 1″ lengths (optional)
Leaves of 2 large or three medium stalks of lemon verbena, stacked up and slivered crosswise finely.

Peel the shrimp. Cut off the bottom stump (about 2″) of the lemongrass, cut off the top about 1/3 of the way doen, peel the outer leaves off the remaining stalk, and sliver very finely crosswise, then chop well on a cutting board. Combine the chopped garlic, ginger, galangal if using, and turmeric with the lemongrass and pound in a mortart and pestle until finely ground. Add the fish sauce and sugar and pound until amalgamated. Rub into the shrimp and put it in the refrigerator for half and hour, or up to two hours. Have the beans ready if using.
When ready to cook, heat a skillet or the griddle of your grill quite hot. Put the beans in, stir them around for about two minutes, then add the seasoned shrimp. Try not to fiddle with them; leave them sitting in contact with the hot metal for a minute or two on each side, then test for doneness. If not ready, turn again and keep cooking, but check frequently for doneness. The second they are done, toss on the slivered lemon verbena, toss the shrimp mixture around briefly for less than a minute, then serve. Jasmine rice is a good accompaniment, and if you have the vigor to make Nam Prik Pao from David Thompson’s addictive book Thai Food, add a little on the side. A little sriricha or sweet Thai chile sauce on the side may appeal to chile-lovers. Roasted corn is a good vegetable accompaniment: rub shucked and cleaned ears of corn with a mixture of canola oil, salt, ground chile, and a little palm sugar, wrap in foil, and roast on the grill, turning regularly. A hoppy beer is a good accompaniment.

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