• Southeast Asia: A Cook’s Paradise

    As the number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula will attest, Americans love Southeast Asian cuisine. According to www.cuisinet.com, Southeast Asia stretches east from India and Bangladesh to the southern border of China, encompassing the mainland countries of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the island countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Each country has dishes influenced by its history.  For example, in Indonesia and Malaysia the prevalence of Islam has virtually eliminated pork from the diet.  Vietnamese food retains the flavors of centuries of French occupation and Filipino food is enhanced with Spanish and American accents.

    All Southeast Asian cuisines, however, share many staple ingredients and methods of cooking. A standard Southeast Asian meal strives for a harmonious balance of textures, temperatures and flavors:  hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty and bitter (optional). These cuisines are known for their liberal use of fresh, not dried, herbs and spices. Fresh cilantro leaves, ginger, lemongrass, chilies, mint and garlic are typical ingredients.

    Lemongrass:  Exotic but Locally Available

    Melissa’s Great Book of Produce reports that lemongrass, widely used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, is used like an herb to add citrusy tartness and fragrance. It looks a little like an elongated, sturdy green onion.  Lemongrass is fibrous and somewhat woody. Most often it’s the cream-colored bulb at the base that’s used to flavor sauce, soup and curry or in stir-fries and marinades for grilled meats.

    Buying and Storing

    Melissa’s advises to look for firm, unblemished, wrinkle-free stems. The fullest bulbs are most desirable.  Store in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator up to 4 weeks.  Keep dry as moisture causes deterioration. Or freeze finely minced, peeled bulbs (see Preparation) in an airtight container up to 3 months.  Scoop out portions as needed and use frozen.


    Trim off a tiny bit of the bulb’s base if tough.  Use the bottom portion, just 2 – 3 inches of bulb. (The upper portion stalks can be cut into 3-inch pieces, crushed and used to infuse broths and curries. The stalk is removed before serving.) Remove and discard 2 or 3 tough outer layers of bulb.  Place the remaining bulb in a mini food processor and pulse to finely mince.


    Lemongrass is available domestically year round. On the Monterey Peninsula  lemongrass is sold  at Grove Market in Pacific Grove, Nob Hill on Lighthouse in Monterey, Whole Foods in Del Monte Center and Star Market in Salinas.

    Lemongrass-Speared Grilled Chicken Satay with Thai Peanut Sauce

    Recipe courtesy www.globalgourmet.com/food/kgk (Kate’s Global Kitchen food blog)

    This unusual and exotic presentation yields appetizer-size servings.  For a main course, double the recipe and serve with rice. 

    Yield: 4 servings


    Marinade and chicken

    ½ cup canned coconut milk

    ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice (2 large limes)

    ¼ cup peanut oil

    2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

    1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger

    1 teaspoon sugar

    ½ teaspoon minced garlic

    4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 4 ounces each)

    4 lemongrass stalks (about 9 inches long)


    1-1/2 cups canned coconut milk

    6 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

    3 tablespoons brown sugar

    3 tablespoons soy sauce

    3 tablespoons minced onion

    2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste              

    1 tablespoon minced garlic                        

    1 tablespoon minced fresh lemongrass

    2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar

    1 teaspoon minced lime zest

    ½ cup minced fresh cilantro leaves

    3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves


    Place the coconut milk, lime juice, oil, cilantro, ginger, sugar and garlic in a mixing bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Cut each chicken breast lengthwise into 3 strips and let marinate in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 hours.  Remove the outer leaves of each stalk of lemongrass and cut the thinner end at an angle to make lemongrass skewers; set aside.

    To prepare the sauce, place the coconut milk, peanut butter, sugar, soy sauce, onion, curry paste, garlic, lemongrass, vinegar, lime zest, cilantro and basil in a large saucepan.  Bring just to a simmer while stirring but do not boil. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes.  Turn off the heat and strain the sauce before serving.

    While the sauce is cooking, thread the marinated chicken strips onto the lemongrass skewers and grill over direct medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until cooked through.  Serve with the warm peanut sauce.

    I found that by soaking the skewers for a little while in water they worked better when threading the chicken.

    Betsy Slinkard Alexander provides freelance writing and public relations services with a focus on the food industry.
     She welcomes your ideas for future columns and can be reached at (831) 655-2098 or betsyslinkard@sbcglobal.net

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 28, 2009

    Topics: Current Edition, Features, Columns & Contributors


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