I tasted lemongrass for the first time in 1986, in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant in Redwood City, a few miles away from my home while I lived in California. I’m afraid the restaurant, Than’s, no longer exists. My former husband and I used to have lunch at Than’s on Saturdays. In those days we knew next to nothing about Vietnamese food, but on our first visit I ordered “Chicken in Lemongrass Sauce,” and thought I had died and gone to heaven. Whenever we returned over the following three years we’d share two dishes, and lemongrass chicken was always one of them. I just couldn’t get over it. Some people say that you can substitute lemon zest, or Meyer lemon’s zest, …they lie. Lemongrass has NO comparable substitute: it’s just that special and just that good.
So, when I had the luck of finding fresh lemongrass in our farmer’s market, I made sure to bring some home, and put it to good use….
THAI CHICKEN BREASTS WITH HERB-LEMONGRASS CRUST
(adapted from Fine Cooking #86, July 2007)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh lemongrass
12 fresh basil leaves
1 serrano pepper, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
salt to taste
2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
1 lime, cut into wedges
Combine 3/4 of the cilantro with the coconut milk, lemongrass, basil, serrano, garlic, salt, brown sugar, pepper and coriander in a blender and puree until smooth. Place the chicken breasts in a dish in a single layer, and pour this marinade over them, turning to coat them completely. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours (mine stayed 7 hours in the fridge).
Heat a grill to medium high, grill the chicken until it has good grill marks on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the chicken and continue to cook until completely cooked through (check by making a slice into one of the thicker breasts), 5 to 6 more minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and let rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup cilantro and serve with the lime wedges.
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Comments: The secret for this recipe is blending the marinade to turn it into a thick paste. The lemongrass flavor is more pronounced this way, a blast of freshness in perfect balance with the coconut milk and herbs.
Food memories can be so strong! While slicing the lemongrass, I went straight back to Redwood City, and could almost visualize the table cloths in that simple, but amazing restaurant. It was run by a husband and wife, their two young kids very shy peeking at the customers from behind the counter. I often wonder where they are now, probably all grown up and graduated from college. 😉
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