Of all the many flavorings available in cooking, citrus is one of the most popular. Its acidic tang balances out many dishes and is a favorite among chefs and home bakers alike. However, when it comes to dairy, acid can immediately curdle and destroy a dish. That is where lemon flavorings come into play. Lemon verbena, lemon extract and lemongrass all feature a citrusy scent and flavor without any of the acid and make for a lovely addition. Traditionally, lemon verbena is used in desserts and lemongrass in savory dishes, but there is no reason for this to be so. Lemongrass, a dense, fibrous stalk with a subtle lemony flavor and thick aroma, imparts its flavor easily. Reminiscent of the beginning of spring, it is not overwhelming in the slightest and blooms on the palate as a hint of the fireworks to come.
Botanically, lemongrass is related to citronella, which is used in bug repellents, although it is not literally a bug repellent. The plant and its relatives are widely used in perfumes and as a medicinal herb, especially in Indian cultures. The genus has been known to have antifungal properties, and has occasionally been used to attract bees. From this alone, few would think to use lemongrass in a dessert.
As a popular aromatic, lemongrass is often used in Asian cooking. I have almost exclusively found the herb in the Thai coconut soup Tom Kha, where it lends depth to a creamy, spicy, coconutty delight, although it is not something you want to find in your dish. A slurp of soup is not meant to consist of chewing on something that feels like sandalwood against your teeth. The beauty of lemongrass is its mystery. It is there, but not in body. Its spirit marks a dish but does not intrude. And when it comes to desserts, lemongrass can truly shine.
In the following sorbet recipe, lemongrass is paired with mint to pump up the refreshing power of this icy dessert. Just in time for summer, lemongrass is jumping into our kitchens and hearts.