Lemon grass is an exotic ingredient from the tropics which I had never played around with, so I was intrigued when the ingredients were announced for this month's Royal Foodie Joust. Jousters must use lemon grass, asparagus and almonds in creating a recipe for the Leftover Queen's royal table.
I did manage to hunt down a rather poor specimen of fresh lemon grass at the supermarket, but it looked unappetizingly withered and yellowed. I did some further prowling in the Asian foods section and found a small jar of sliced lemon grass in water. It has a pronounced grassy and citrusy perfume, though its taste is not very robust.
I was interested in making a lemon grass version of gremolata, the classic Italian garnish for osso buco which traditionally contains lemon, fresh garlic and parsley, but the lemon grass seemed much too delicate to withstand this culinary assault, so I made a completely blasphemous gremolata of lemongrass, finely chopped scallion tips and chopped toasted almonds to crown a delicately flavored rice and asparagus salad.
Crowned with asparagus tips steamed to a perfect shade of emerald and tied up in sheaves with scallion ribbons, this seems an appropriately regal dish to serve up in the royal court and to welcome (and plead for in upstate New York!) the arrival of Spring.
Asparagus-Rice Salad with Lemon Grass Gremolata
1 bunch asparagus spears
4 cups cold cooked rice
2 Tbsp. sliced lemon grass in water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. olive oil (not extra-virgin)
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Trip woody ends from asparagus. Trim the top 3 inches of your spears and reserve. Cut remaining asparagus stalks on the diagonal into 1 inch lengths.
Clean and trim scallions. Cut off white parts of scallion and chop finely. Reserve. Take green parts of scallions and place with asparagus tips.
Bring 1/2 cup lightly salted water to boil in saucepot. Place steamer basket in and add diagonally-cut asparagus pieces. Cover and steam for 5-6 minutes, or until crisp-tender and bright green. Remove steamer basket and dump asparagus pieces into colander. Rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Drain and reserve.
Place steamer basket back in saucepot and add asparagus tips. Lay scallion greens on top. Cover and steam 3-4 minutes, or until asparagus is bright green and crisp-tender and scallion "ribbons" are soft and pliable. Remove steamer basket and place vegetables in colander. Rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Drain and reserve. Lay scallion ribbons out flat to dry.
Toast almonds in 400 degree F oven (I used my toaster oven) for 4-5 minutes, until they are golden brown and fragrant. They burn easily (Voice of Experience!) so keep an eye on them, as nuts are expensive ingredients. Cool and chop coarsely.
Mix rice and diagonally-cut asparagus pieces. Add half of chopped, toasted almonds (reserving other half for the gremolata). Make a vinaigrette of rice vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour over rice salad and gently combine.
For the gremolata, mix remaining toasted almonds with lemon grass and reserved portion of chopped white scallions.
Take about 5-6 asparagus spears and lay across scallion ribbon. Tie in a simple knot (the scallions are a bit slippery, but they do stay once tied). Trim bottoms of asparagus to tidy things up and add trimmings to your rice salad.
To plate the dish up, place gremolata in bottom of a 5 cup dish (individual servings would look lovely molded from custard cups, but I didn't have any.) Press rice salad in dish and pat down firmly. Invert onto a serving plate and unmold carefully. Garnish with asparagus bundles.
This dish looks a little more prissy than it actually is. The whole dish took less than 45 minutes from start to finish, and involved three simple techniques: steaming, mixing up a vinaigrette and unmolding the rice salad. The cute little asparagus bundles are an optional garnish, but were easy enough to make provided your scallion greens are long enough.
The verdict: The Crispy Cook presented this dish to her man, who was quite hungry, but still raised an eyebrow at his plate, which he thought looked like "something cute for the Ladies who Lunch set". Happily, after he forked in a few mouthfuls, he thought it was a winner. The chopped, toasted almonds add a delicate richness to the other delicately-flavored ingredients and the scallions are about as zingy as you want to get in spicing up this light salad.
Wish me luck in the Royal Foodie Joust! Be sure to check out the other great asparagus/lemon grass/almond creations that are starting to pour in. There are already Asparagus Cookies, a cool Chicken Satay grilled on Asparagus spears, and Pork and Asparagus Rolls from other creative cooks. This is always a fun foodie event and the entries should prove to be very inspiring this round.