A few days back we had our first frost warning. This was followed by a week's forecast of sunny and high 70s - low 80s. How unfair! So with that frost warning in mind, I pulled up the basil and harvested the leaves and pulled up two of my three lemon grass plants. (I made a bet — and won! — that the third lemon grass patch would survive the frost and get to enjoy one last stretch of warm weather.)
I pulled apart the stalks of lemon grass and stuck a few, with roots on of course, in glasses of water. I'll overwinter these stalks this way and replant them in the spring. I've done this two years running now. Small lemon grass plants run some $8 each at the Ann Arbor farmer's market, so this is an economical way to keep the lemon grass growing.
With a pile of fresh lemon grass on the kitchen counter I knew I had to make something fresh that day, and I pulled out my first Vietnamese cookbook and looked up a lemon grass stir-fry dish. I had acquired this cookbook back in my undergrad days. It was a glamorous book for its time (and still is), with beautiful food-art photos. I knew a lot less about cooking Asian dishes back then, and a lot of the ingredients (like fresh lemon grass) were hard to come by. My first Vietnamese stir-fry involved chicken, onions, fish sauce, and garlic. Back then I thought that fish sauce smelled awful when cooking but tasted just fine in the final dish. These days I'm so used to it that it doesn't even smell bad to me anymore. It just is what it is.
2 Stalks fresh lemon grass (or 2 Tbs dried)
1 lb lean beef filet (I used flank steak)
2 fresh red chiles, seeded and minced (I used jalapeños)
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbs nuoc nam (fish sauce)
1 tsp arrowroot starch or cornstarch
fresh ground black pepper
6 Tbs vegetable oil
1 Tbs sugar
2 med onions, cut into slivers (slivers? I cut them into fine half-round slices.)
1/4 Cup roasted peanuts, coarsely ground
cilantro sprigs for garnish (optional)
Prepare lemon grass: if using fresh, discard outer leaves and the "grassy" tops and slice into thin rounds. If you have a food processor, pulse the slices until finely chopped. Otherwise, you'll have to do it the hard way and hand slice and chop very fine. If using dried: soak in warm water for one hour, drain, and chop very fine.
Cut beef across the grain into thin slices about 2 inches long. Routhier says to pound the slices lightly with the flat of a cleaver. My slices were very thin, so I didn't bother.
In a bowl, combine the beef with the chiles, 1/2 of the garlic, lemon grass, 2 Tbs of fish sauce, arrowroot starch, black pepper to taste, and 2 Tbs of the oil. Mix well and set aside for 30 minutes.
(if you haven't already done so, this would be a good time to prepare the onions and peanuts)
Heat 2 Tbs of the oil in your wok. Fry onions and remaining garlic until crispy golden brown and remove with slotted spoon and set aside. (Don't follow my example! I always end up overcooking them until they are charred. Remove them just before you think they are ready.)
Add the remaining 2 Tbs of oil. Stir fry beef with remaining 1 Tbs of fish sauce and the sugar over high heat until beef is just cooked. Transfer to platter. Arrange with onions, top with peanuts and more ground black pepper and garnish with cilantro.
Serve with rice, or make a Vietnamese-style sandwich by splitting a sandwich-length section of a French baguette and stuffing it with the beef, along with some lettuce.
This dish also works wonderfully well with chicken.