Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lemongrass, ginger and coconut

Sun steams through the windows at the back of the house and, with it, sharp wintry shadows fall dramatically across the desk. Only a small corner of sun and warmth this, so the resident animals settle themselves snuggly around my feet, snoozing. Wild winds – dramatic and exciting – blew through the house this week, through every door and window that could be prised from creaky, neglected hinges. The act of blowing out the dank, recycled air was long overdue. A musky breath of Japanese incense curled around the kitchen as the house, and my thinking, sprang back to life.

Does the season in which one is born dictate the sort of holiday one craves? Not the classic hammock strung between coconut palms for me, a babe of the colder months. Give me cold, give me cosy fires, give me brisk walks and blanketing snow. Yet the food of balmy climes captures all of my imagination. A friend’s email arrived describing, in the course of things, a dish of such sweetness and exotic perfume that I wondered, aloud, if we here in Australia are hard-wired to the exotic foods of our South East Asian neighbours. Slipping a kaffir lime leaf into a mug of freshly boiled water, waiting for the citrus scent to rise, this must, surely, be true.

James Oseland describes an Indonesian technique of bruising and knotting stalks of lemongrass to impart flavour in much the same way as the French use a bouquet garni. The fragrant, crushed stalks make a winter kitchen, indeed any kitchen, smell incredible. A gingery, coconutty Malaysian and Singaporean breakfast specialty, Nasi Lemak translates literally as the less than appetising ‘fatty rice’. Fatty here simply describes the rich, sumptuous nature of the dish. It is far too good to be saved for breakfast alone. Served with a vaguely Indonesian (and Very Addictive) quick pickle of vegetables and little dishes of crispy things, this is a surprisingly fast and deeply satisfying meal. P’raps I am a warm weather girl after all…

Quick cucumber and carrot pickle feeds 4-6

Vaguely Indonesian, these quick pickles, stained yellow from a smattering of ground turmeric, are tangy and moreish. The green chillies have only the merest hint of heat to them, but half a green capsicum (pepper) could be substituted. Unfortunately the best use I can come up with for a green capsicum is the compost heap…

1 large carrot
1 cucumber, same length as your carrot
3 golden shallots, peeled
2 long green chillies
1 tablespoon of sea salt
1 clove of garlic, crushed
½ cup rice or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of palm sugar or caster sugar
½ teaspoon of ground turmeric
1 tablespoon of mustard seeds
¼ cup of macadamia or light olive oil

Peel the carrot and cut it into thin matchsticks. Slice the cucumber lengthways, scrape out the seeds using a teaspoon and cut into batons. Slice the shallots and green chillies into rounds. Place all in a bowl, toss and set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the vegetables. Toss well, then rest while you prepare the rice. Remainders will keep, well sealed and refrigerated, for a few days.

Nasi Lemak (Lemongrass, ginger and coconut rice) feeds 4-6

Adapted from Oseland’s wonderful Cradle of Flavour. A small tin of coconut milk is just that – as small as you like. Remember that ‘light’ coconut milk is simply the full-fat stuff diluted with water. Like the homogenization of milk, it’s something I can do, quite simply, myself.

2 cups of basmati or jasmine rice
1 small tin of coconut milk
3 stalks of lemongrass
A large thumb of fresh, juicy ginger, peeled
1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt
A few tablespoons of fried shallots
A few tablespoons of dry roasted peanuts, chopped
4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered (optional)

Wash the rice in several changes of water. Drain well. Pour the coconut milk into a measuring jug and top up with enough water to make 3 ½ cups of liquid.

Bruise the lemongrass all the way along each stalk with something blunt and heavy – ideally a pestle. Tie each roughly in a knot. Bruise the ginger in the same way. Place the rice in a medium-sized saucepan, one with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in the diluted coconut milk, add the lemongrass knots and ginger and bring to a boil. Add the salt then place the lid on tightly and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. A heat diffuser set between pot and heat is very helpful. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat (no peeking) then rest untouched for 10 minutes.

Discard the lemongrass stalks and any visible chunks of ginger. Fluff with a fork and serve in a large bowl. The pickles, shallots, peanuts and eggs should be set in separate dishes for everyone to help him or herself.

Suganya of Tasty Palettes is hosting this month’s edition of ‘A Fruit a Month’ and she has, rather cleverly, chosen coconut as this month’s theme. This, accordingly, is my entry.


kathryn said...

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy. Oh my. These were worth the wait. Particularly enchanted by the idea of bruising and knotting up your lemongrass. Reading your post, I'm now craving those flavours and tastes.

Having been born in the UK spring, I now live in Australia, where the same month is autumn, turning into winter. These between months remain my favourites. The change of seasons, the thought of something new ahead, the more temperate weather, the renewal or decay that's occurring around me - these are the times I love.

As ever, beautiful, beautiful recipes.

Lucy said...

Well, it was YOUR description, Kathryn, of that rice pudding of yours - oh, how it made my tastebuds sing! - that made me realise that those really are flavours that we crave.

I'm a deep mid-winter baby myself, but am growing ever more partial to the warmer weather...the pickles are so good that more are marinating right now, just in time for our lunch!

Another Outspoken Female said...

Yum! I want to go back to Indonesia right now. Despite being a winter baby who loves open fires and wooly knee rugs, there is something about the warmth of the sun, a blue ocean and green coconut juice that sends me all of a quiver.

Laurie Constantino said...

You've painted a lovely picture - I was right there with you and listening to the whistling wind. The knotted lemongrass makes me want to rush out and buy some immmediately. It's a great picture.

shula said...

Dammit, Lucy, you've done it to me again, and there is no lemongrass in the house.

Knotted. What a great idea. Why didn't I think of that?

Lucy said...

AOF - I think it's time I re-thought my weather/holiday stance.

Thanks Laurie. It's a beautiful scent.

Shula, I wish I had too. Simple ideas often yeild the most amazing results.

Callipygia said...

well I am a June baby/being which is high summer here, but fall/winter person definitely...hmm maybe?

Never enough pickles, specially with peppers!

Mevrouw Cupcake said...

The lemongrass tip is wonderful! I've been wanted to play around with a lemongrass custard for ages, and this would definitely help to make it even more lush!

Lisa said...

Well, I was born in March and I decidedly have a strong preference for the summer months, even though the humidity can sometimes be a bit much to take.

Lovely post, as always Lucy. Lemon grass is something that is relatively new to my kitchen. Wonderful tip and recipes.

maybelles parents said...

lovely writing as always, however, I must say the capsicum lobby will come and find you...j/k. But, i think you should rethink it. I used to hate them, but then when I grew my own, I came to really appreciate them, like in thin thin slivers on Haka noodles; shaved onto noodle soup; curried in a very gingery curry. Pass by the ones in the store, but if homegrown, give that friend a hearty thank you and eat them up.

Wendy said...

Just slipped a lime leaf into a mug of hot water and am loving it. Will also be trying out this pickle in the summer too. Sounds wonderful.

And green peppers? Other than nibbling raw, I don't know what to do with them either.

Sophie said...

The lemongrass tip is excellent Lucy.

We had a sudden craving for a thai curry last night and while the lemongrass flavour was wonderful, we ended up with lots of stringy pieces left in the bottom. Much better to get the flavour then be able to pick the lemongrass out at the end. I will try this when I get round to using the remaining piece!

p.s I have made my peace with green peppers as they always sell them in three packs in the UK (red/green/yellow). Chilli's, tomato-based currys and satay type dishes are the way to go!

bee said...

that rice is something i'd love to try. we make tea almost daily with lemongrass and ginger, but adding kaffir lime is new to me. i have a stash in the freezer. will add it to my tea tomorrow.

Ricki said...

Just lovely! I've never used lemongrass--it does look beautiful (especially knotted up that way. . . ).

And as an October baby, I can say the season theory isn't foolproof--my preference is, by a long shot, summer!

Anonymous said...

You inspired me this morning to turn the heater off and open the doors and windows. I am loving the change of recycled air and the invigorating coldness on my bare feet. It is rather cold this morning, and a bit damp, but I heard yesterday we have had the second driest June on record. :-( Sigh.

I love the heat, but with a bit of humidity, which is not what Adelaide brings. I am not a winter girl, but this year am working on loving it. So far, so good.

I love kaffir, lemongrass and lemon verbena tea. Ginger goes into everything. My friend calls this the House of Ginger. :-) Add some mint if you have it. Have you tried a sprig of parsley in your tea? or a little fresh rosemary? All good.

Lucy said...

Calli, I'm with you. Never enough pickles.

Mari - what a brilliant use for those lemony knots.

Lisa, I think my theory only applies to me...thanks.

Maybelle's Mom, you are right. Gingery curries and fresh from the plant it shall be.

Wendy, isn't it a great tea? Unexpectedly good and very fragrant.

Sophie, it's those rope-y bits that gey stuck in your teeth that I hate, too. This is a great way to bypass that problem. And a satay with gree you've got me thinking...

bee, I predict you'll love it!

Ricki, yes, I'm sure now that the theory only applies to me...

Vegeyum, I think House of Ginger is a very luscious compliment to your beautiful cooking!! And I'm pleased that you, too, opened up the house. I once read that every room in every house should be open to the air for at least 15 minutes every day to expel bad energy, or something like that. I don't know about the 'energy', I do love the fresh, clean smell it brings!