Its one of the most subtle and delicious aromatics, says Nigel Slater. Use it in soup, and save some for pudding, too

At the bottom of the refrigerator is a little plastic box of aromatics: a hand of ginger, an assortment of red and orange chillies, a tuber of galangal and a tight bundle of lemongrass stalks. This is the box of tricks that comes out when I make pho or any kind of coconut milk curry or soup( the lemongrass neatly cuts the fattiness of the coconut ). Today it comes out for a classic and a curiosity.

I buy lemongrass from Chinatown if I’m passing through, because the husks are more plump there, the layers of tightly packed leaves softer and greener. They are also cheaper than elsewhere. But what really matters is the freshness of the stubbles. So many around are dry and absence the highly aromatic quality that builds them worth buying. The bottled ones, by the way, are as good as useless.

Lemon verbena, a herb I use for tea and that grows abundantly if your plant is protected against the frost, is a better substitute for lemongrass than lemon. It has something of the effervescence of the stems. Lemongrass, like lime foliages, suffers from freeze, bottling and drying. The basic citrus flavor remains, but the real magic, the addictive essence- its heart and soul if you like- is lost.

The idea of flavouring creme caramel with vanilla or coconut is easy to get to grips with, but I have always had doubts concerning flavouring the milk itself. But an infusion of lemongrass worked superbly this week, producing a mildly citrus note that is flattered rather than overpowered by the thin layer of caramel that lies on top. The herb added a refreshing note that appealed at the end of dinner, though I should probably admit to scoffing one at breakfast, too, in lieu of my usual yogurt. But then, what kind of a world is it when we can’t have pudding for breakfast?

Prawn and lemongrass soup

Serves 4
prawns 16, large and raw
shallots 400 g, small
groundnut oil 4 tbsp
lemongrass husks 3
ginger 50 g
water 1.5 litres
carrots 150 g
sugar snap peas 150 g
coriander a handful
nam pla( fish sauce) 1 tbsp

Peel the prawns, defining the shells to one side. Return the prawns to the fridge. Peel half the shallots then approximately chop them. Warm half the oil in a deep pan then add the shallots and fry them until they are soft and pale gold.

Split the stalks of lemongrass lengthways, discarding the tough, outer leaves, then bash them hard with a heavy weight, such as a rolled pin, to splinter them. Add the shattered stalks to the shallots. Peel the ginger, cut it into coins about as thick as a PS2 piece, and add them to the shallots. Continue cooking over a low heat.

Add the reserved prawn shells to the pot. Pour the water into the pan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, then leave to simmer for 30 minutes.

Peel the remaining shallots, cut them in half, then open into individual layers. Peel the carrots, cut into thin slice then into short matchsticks. Warm the remaining part groundnut oil in a large pan, then cook the shallots until golden.

Cut the sugar snap peas into thin strips. Add the reserved prawns and cook them for 3 minutes on both sides. Strain the broth through a sieve into the shallots and prawns. Add the carrots and sugar snaps and season with the fish sauce, then cook for a minute or two before tearing the coriander leaves and adding them to the soup.

Lemongrass creme caramel

Mellow yellow: lemongrass creme caramel. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Shred the lemongrass finely, into paper-thin discs, this is why it dedicates up as much flavour as is practicable to the milk. The custards are cooked when the mixture is softly firm but will still quiver when shaken. Makes 4.

For the caramel:
caster sugar 125 g

For the custard:
creamy milk 500 ml
lemongrass 3 large stalks
egg yolks 4
eggs 2
caster sugar 80 g

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Finely slice the lemongrass then add to the milk and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, covering with a lid and set aside for 20 minutes to infuse.

Make the caramel by putting the sugar into a small pan then pouring over enough water to only cover it. Place the pan over a moderate hot and leave to simmer, watching carefully, until walnut brown.

Set the oven at 150 C/ gas mark 2. Pour the caramel into 4 china ramekins, twisting each one from side to side until the base of the dish is covered with a fine layer.

Put the kettle on to simmer. Attain the custard: beat together the egg yolks, eggs and 80 g of caster sugar. Strain the infused milk through a sieve into a large jug to remove the pieces of lemongrass. Pour the milk over the eggs and sugar and stir together. Pour or ladle the concoction into the caramel-lined dishes. Lower them into a cook tin then place on the middle shelf of the oven. Pour enough boiling water from the kettle to arrive halfway up the sides of the dishes.

Bake the custards for 40 minutes until they are just defined. They should quiver when gently shaken. Remove and leave to cool, then chill for at the least 2 hours. To turn out, operate a palette knife around the edge, place a small plate on top and turn the plate and ramekin over. Shake firmly and let the custard slide out.

Email Nigel at nigel.slater @observer. or follow him on Twitter @NigelSlater

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