Don’t miss out on cooking with lemon grass because you don’t know what to do with it. I’ll admit it can be an intimidating ingredient. The long, woody stalks don’t look like something worthy of eating and their citrusy scent isn’t unleashed until you cut into it.
So just what is this intriguing ingredient so important in Thai Cooking? It resembles a large green onion but with a grassy texture and pale yellow color. It has an unmistakable citrusy lemon flavor that it gets from citral, an essential oil also found in lemon peel. And because its texture is woody, very fibrous and a little stringy, most typically you see lemon grass in Thai soups where pieces of it are added to unleash its flavor in the broth and not intended for eating (similar to a bay leaf). Or you don’t see it at all when it has been pounded into a curry paste and whisked into coconut milk to form the base flavor in a Thai curry.
This recipe uses lemon grass in a more unusual way by actually finely mincing it in the food processor and folding it into a mixture for meatballs. I know you may be thinking “what – another meatball recipe!?” My daughter’s friends, who have been obsessing over my Ginger Cilantro Chicken Meatballs, inspired and gently challenged me to come up with this version because they simply LOVE meatballs and Thai food. I wanted to figure out a way to get the incredible lemon grass flavor into the meatballs, rather than in the sauce to get the flavor in every bite. The remaining ingredients are minimal and surprisingly an egg is not necessary to hold the mixture together. There’s just a small amount of finely chopped Serrano chile pepper that gives the meatballs a little spiciness.
Baby spinach leaves are added to the sauce and meatballs at the end of cooking and other options are torn bits of kale leaves or snow pea pods. Serving the meatballs and sauce over a spoonful of cooked Basmati or Jasmine rice makes this a meal in one.
Lemon grass stalksUse the bottom 1/3 of the stalk.Trim about 3/4 to 1 inch off the stem end.Peel off dry outer leaves.Slice into small pieces.Finely mince in the food processor.
- 3 stalks lemon grass
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 pound ground chicken thigh (breast can be used but I prefer thigh for flavor and texture)
- ⅓ cup panko crumbs
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped serrano chile (about 1 large)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper, to your liking
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
- ½ cup chopped green onion
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
- 2-1/2 cups chicken broth (I prefer low sodium)
- 1 cup canned coconut milk (light coconut milk can be used)
- 2 tablespoons red curry paste
- ½ cup chopped fresh basil
- 5 ounces baby spinach leaves or 2 cups snow or snap peas or 4 cups kale leaves, stems removed and torn into small pieces
- Cooked jasmine or basmati rice
- To prepare the lemon grass, slice the stalk to use only the bottom one third (about 6 inches). Slice about ¾ to 1 inch off the stem end, then peel off any bruised and dry outer layers to get to the softer inside. Cut into thin slices, then transfer to a food processor (fitted with a steel blade), along with the water and process until finely minced, scraping down the sides several times and cleaning off the blade as needed (pieces of lemon grass can get stuck in the tip of the blade and keep it from turning and finely mincing the lemon grass), this can take several minutes. It is important the lemongrass is finely minced; you should have ½ cup. Transfer lemon grass to a bowl.
- Add ground chicken, panko, serrano, salt and pepper to the finely shredded lemon grass and stir together until evenly mixed. In the palm of your hands, roll into about 20 one-inch size meatballs. Meatballs can be formed several hours ahead of cooking and refrigerated.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat; add meatballs in a single layer and cook until browned, turning several times (often lightly shaking the pan accomplishes this) about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove meatballs from the skillet.
- If necessary, add an additional 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet; add onion and garlic and cook just to soften but not brown, about 1 minute. Add chicken broth and coconut milk and bring to a simmer, scraping up any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan; simmer over low heat until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Whisk in curry paste, then add browned meatballs; cover and simmer over low heat until meatballs are cooked through, stirring a few times to rotate meatballs, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Stir in basil then scatter spinach over meatballs and slightly stir into sauce; cover and cook just until spinach is wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Serve with cooked rice.