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Lemon Grass--Southeast Asian Ingredient Makes Its Presence Known

April 18, 1985|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

Question: Can you please tell me more about lemon grass, an ingredient used in Thai cooking? According to a waiter in a Thai restaurant, lemon grass is the secret to the restaurant's hot, spicy chicken stew I had once. What are its other uses? I've looked in all my cookbooks and couldn't find this ingredient anywhere.

Answer: A tall green grass with a white base that resembles the green onion stalk, lemon grass originated in Southeast Asia and is usually available in its dried form. However, now that it is being grown in the San Joaquin Valley, lemon grass is sometimes available in fresh form. Some cooks even grow it in their backyard.

According to Cook's Magazine, the green leaves also make a delicious, soothing, lemon-flavored tea. Lemon grass may be added to beef or pork marinades, stir-fry dishes or served raw in salads and with marinated vegetables. It is also good with fish and other seafood or chicken sautes, soups or stews.

To use in cooking, peel the white base up to the point where the leaves begin to branch out, and slice or chop it as you would green onions.

For tea, add a tablespoon of chopped fresh leaves to 1 cup boiling water. Flavor improves with long brewing and reheating.

Like asparagus, lemon grass will keep longer (up to six weeks) if the stem end is kept in water when stored in the refrigerator. Although the leaves will discolor, its fresh lemon flavor will not be affected. To freeze, place lemon grass and small amount of water in plastic bag.

Q: Among the different types of teas, which is highest in caffeine?

A: Black tea, which is fermented, has the highest caffeine; green tea, which is unfermented, is nearly caffeine-free, and the third type, oolong tea, which is partially fermented, is in the middle. The effect of caffeine in tea is not as strong as that from coffee because aside from caffeine, teas contain other ingredients that slow down the release of caffeine. They have tannin, which gives astringency and body, and essential oils that provide the aroma and flavor.

Q: Back to basics you might think, but can you please clarify some crumb terminology in recipes? What is meant by soft bread crumbs, dry bread crumbs and fine bread crumbs; it seems as though they all mean the same.

A: Bread crumb lingo, here it goes: Soft bread crumbs, sometimes called fresh bread crumbs, are made from day-old bread (strictly fresh bread is more difficult to break into crumbs). This may be done by tearing bits into a food processor or blender and processing until crumbed. Other ways are to crumble fresh bread between fingers or to pass the bread through a coarse sieve.

Fine dry bread crumbs are commercially available but may also be made at home using lightly toasted bread. To make fine dry bread crumbs, thoroughly dry out bread in a 250-degree oven until it is crisp but not browned. (Or briefly place at higher temperature to crisp, then slowly dry out in slow oven.) Run through blender or processor until finely crumbed. The dry bread may also be placed in a clean plastic bag and rolled with a rolling pin. Sift and reroll the crumbs.

Dry and fresh bread crumbs are measured differently. Pack soft crumbs lightly into the cup and press gently to level off the top. Spoon dry bread crumbs into the cup and level off with the straight edge of a knife. One slice of fresh bread (5/8-inch thick) will yield about 1 cup soft bread crumbs or cubes. One slice of dry bread yields about 1/3 cup dry bread crumbs.

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