We’re sitting on two corner barstools on one of the first warm evenings of the season. I order my regular – a Singha — he orders a Chang. Even though it’s the usual, we still laugh every time he says it, reminiscing over the month we spent in Thailand and the urban myth told over and over by fellow travelers surrounding the country’s most controversial beer.
Thirty minutes later and there are half a dozen chicken wing bones sitting in a bowl. Our fingertips are sticky from the spicy sweet fish sauce glaze, our beers half empty, and one of us, I can’t remember which now, realizes that these are the same two stools we sat in almost two years ago to the day, when we’d first moved into our new home and went out for the night to celebrate. We felt completely broke at the time, our bank accounts emptied in the name of home ownership, but told ourselves, “We can budget for the rest of the month — Tonight we should celebrate.” Barrett and I have this really special talent of sniffing out excuses to celebrate even the tiniest occasion — an exciting gig! a pull-up personal best! the dog sprouted a new white whisker! — with a good meal out but homeownership seems like a pretty damn good one if you ask me.
It was a chilly, rainy night that night, with Pollock-esque splatters streaking the windows we were facing in columns; but this night is warm and breezy. The windows are open to the street. Our feet are more settled on the rungs of the stools that sit on this ground that is slowly but surely becoming home. Two things that haven’t changed, though, are our bank account, which still seems just as empty as it was two years ago and, oh yeah, the grilled flank steak salad filled with lemongrass and fresh herbs that’s on the way over to our table, just as it was that first night two years ago.
Later, my plate a mess of sticky rice and a few scraps of mint and shallot, I ask the server about lemongrass, the long woody herb that I never can seem to highlight as successfully as they do in the good Thai restaurants. The flank steak salad I’ve just eaten was filled with the light citrus-y herb, speckled with its teensy round slices. It’s late by this point, the kitchen well past the usual 8pm dinner rush, and the next thing I know, the chef is standing over my shoulder, asking what it is I want to know about cooking with lemongrass. “Everything,” I reply, probably too enthusiastically. And with that he proceeds to offer a handful of tips and tricks for cooking with lemongrass that have had me putting the Asian herb in soups and stews and lighter, brighter salads, like this flank steak salad here, inspired by all the nights we’ve shared on a couple of stools at Pok Pok with our Singha and our Chang.
A few tips for cooking with lemongrass:
- Be mindful of where you buy your lemongrass. Because it’s not a particularly popular herb, it doesn’t move off the shelves very quickly at most places. So it’s best to find a place where it does move quickly – like your local Asian Market. Fubonne in Portland or 99 Ranch in California are probably good bets. (Anyone have recommendations for good places in other parts of the country?)
- Look for the fattest bulbed stalks when you buy. And to save an extra penny, remove the toughest outer leaves while you’re in store–most places sell by the pound.
- Give the bottom third of the herb a good whack with the back of a wooden spoon before you start peeling it apart. Some say this helps engage the flavors, others say it does nothing at all. But I remember watching Gregory Gourdet do it once on Top Chef so I think it’s probably a solid tip.
- Peel the outer, woody layer off before you start slicing. The flavor is locked in the lower 4-inches of the herb, the top parts can be tossed out. To get a sense of whether you’ve peeled enough of the outer woody parts off, slice a thin round and listen to the sound as you slice. If there’s a change in sound/feel while you’re slicing, it probably means there’s more woody parts to peel off.
- Slice it thinly into rounds just before using, as thin as you can possibly slice. A good sharp knife will help with this.
- Lemongrass is a delicate herb, so it’s best not to overcook it. Use it raw in salads like this one or add it as one of the very last garnishes to soups and stews.
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, soft interior parts sliced into thin rounds, tough exterior discarded
- ¾ pound of flank steak
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, or ½ teaspoon of sea or regular salt
- ½ teaspoon of fresh cracked pepper
- ½ teaspoon of ground lemongrass*
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons of fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons of lime juice
- 3 teaspoons of brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of water
- 1 teaspoon of freshly cracked pepper (I used pink peppercorn here but black will work fine)
- 3 stalks of lemongrass, soft interior parts sliced into thin rounds, tough exterior discarded
- 1 shallot, sliced paper thin into rounds
- ½ cup of mint leaves
- ½ cup of cilantro, chopped coarsely
- ¼ cup of thai basil (optional)
- 1-2 radishes, sliced thinly into rounds (optional)
- 2 cups of cooked rice (sticky or basmati work particularly well), for serving
- 1 teaspoon of granulated garlic powder (the thick granule type)
- Combine ingredients in a large airtight container and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
- Remove steak from the refrigerator, pat dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt, black (or pink!) pepper, and dried ground lemongrass. Allow to rest at room temperature while you prepare the dressing.
- Whisk together the lime juice, brown sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, water, and pepper in a small bowl until sugar granules have dissipated. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, lightly oil a grill pan and heat over medium-high heat. Cook flank steak to medium-rare, about 8-10 minutes, turning once halfway through. Remove steak and set aside to rest so that juices can redistribute, about 5 minutes.
- While steak is resting, toss lemongrass, shallot, mint leaves, cilantro, basil, and radishes with desired amount of dressing. Top with sliced flank steak and serve alongside rice.