My first awareness of coconut came at age 7 in the form of Mounds Bars. With a burgeoning passion, I began campaigning my mother for more coconut. She obliged with coconut cake, coconut cream pie and macaroons. These days my coconut obsession has shifted away from dessert to discover the savory side of coconut with coconut oil and coconut milk.
The first written reference to coconuts came from a fifth-century monk who traveled through Sri Lanka. He observed the well-established harvest and use of coconut drupes. Drupes are fibrous one-seeded dry fruits, which also may be called a nut or seed. Sanskrit texts suggest that Malaysia was most likely the birthplace of coconut palm trees. However, in 2011, DNA research found that most coconuts belong to not one, but two distinct genetic groups: one from India and another from the nearby Southeast Asian Malaysian Peninsula.
Elongated, angular Indian coconuts spread west to East Africa, West Africa and to South America on European ships. Explorers and settlers likely transported round, squat Malaysian coconuts to the Polynesian Islands and eventually to the middle latitudes between North and South America (Mexico and the Caribbean).
Coconut oil and coconut milk have become beloved staples in many American kitchens. The story of coconut oil in the United States is fraught with political and financial drama. From the 1920s to the 1940s highly refined, bleached and deodorized coconut oil (R.B.D.) was used in commercial food preparations, cosmetic, industrial and pharmaceutical purposes and in home-cooking. By the 1950s it became part of the saturated fat scare and lost favor. In the past decade or less coconut oil has had an image makeover with virgin coconut oil (V.C.O.).
Extraction methods set the two oils apart. R.B.D. coconut oil is pressed from copra (dried coconut meat). The harsh processing destroys flavor, beneficial essential fatty acids and antioxidants. Since it is tasteless and odor-free, R.B.D. coconut oil was commonly used in the United States and Europe for frying and shortening. R.B.D. coconut oil raises cholesterol so reliably that scientists use it as a control when running experiments on other fats. It was this oil that was used in the 1950s to determine the healthfulness of coconut oil.
To produce virgin coconut oil (V.C.O.), shredded fresh, wet coconut is pressed to squeeze out coconut oil and milk. The two form an emulsion that is then separated. Unlike R.B.D. coconut oil, V.C.O. is not refined or subjected to high temperatures, which destroy beneficial, heat-sensitive components like the antioxidant lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid that can raise valuable, artery-clearing H.D.L. cholesterol.
Coconut oil is almost completely saturated fat (but contains no cholesterol), it melts at 76°F, is semi-solid and stable at room temperature with a shelf life of about 2 years. To keep it pliable, store coconut oil in the pantry, not refrigerator. Melted V.C.O. is clear with a mild coconut aroma and delicate, nutty taste. It’s milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, without any of the occasional bitterness of olive oil. It can replace butter or shortening in baking and cooking and is especially delightful for sautéing.
Traditionally, coconut milk comes from labor-intensive grated and pressed fresh coconut. In the U.S. most of what we use is flavorless canned coconut milk often filled with preservatives and stabilizers like guar gum. Look for the tastier, pure coconut milk or cream in one-liter (aseptic) tetra paks. Aroy-D is my favorite brand. Always purchase full fat coconut milk and simmer, do not boil it hard or it may curdle.
Explore other products like coconut “butter” (puréed young coconut meat and coconut oil), coconut flour (dried and finely ground coconut meat) and liquid coconut aminos (aged coconut tree sap and salt that tastes like a delicately sweet soy sauce). Coconut lovers be aware: there’s a big world of coconut out there.
Cream of Mushroom Soup
Coconut milk gives creaminess back to soups for those who avoid dairy products.
Yields 6 to 8 servings
2 T. virgin coconut oil
2 leeks, halved lengthwise, rinsed well, sliced 1/4-inch thick crosswise
1 large sprig fresh thyme
2 t. salt
1 lb. assorted mushrooms, stems removed, caps diced
1/4 C. dry sherry
1 qt. chicken stock or broth
1 C. water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 C. full fat coconut milk, divided
Garnish: chopped fresh thyme leaves
Over moderate heat, melt coconut oil in a 6-quart saucepan or soup pot. Stir in leeks and thyme. Cook until leeks are tender, 5 minutes. Stir in salt and mushrooms and continue to cook until mushrooms are tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Raise heat to high and pour in sherry. Cook until it almost evaporates. Stir in stock and water, bring to a low boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook 20 to 30 minutes. Remove pot from heat and cool. Purée half the soup in a blender. Alternately use an immersion stick blender to partially purée soup.
Stir in lemon juice and 1-1/2 cups coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve soup hot, ladled into bowls. Drizzle each with remaining coconut milk and thyme leaves.
Summer Chopped Salad with Coconut-Tahini Dressing
Double the dressing for delicious leftovers. Add garlic or substitute fresh basil or dill for parsley.
Yields 4 servings
1/4 C. tahini
1/4 C. plus 2 T. full-fat coconut milk
Juice of 1/2 lemon, about 2 T., more to taste
2 T. minced Italian parsley leaves or cilantro
1/4 to 1/2 t. salt, to taste
Optional: 1/2 t. ground coriander or cumin
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced into 1/2-inch squares
1/2 large English cucumber, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 C. cherry tomatoes, halved
Optional: 2 green onions, finely sliced, rinsed with hot water in strainer
1/2 to 1 heart of romaine, washed, dried and finely sliced
Garnish: parsley or cilantro sprigs
Blend together dressing ingredients in a glass jar or bowl until smooth. Taste and adjust flavor with lemon or salt; set aside. Thin dressing to desired consistency with lemon juice or water.
Combine salad ingredients in a large serving bowl and toss with dressing to taste. Reserve extra dressing up to 5 days for another salad. Garnish salad with parsley or cilantro sprigs if desired.
The addition of coconut oil may just compel a kale-denier to fall in love with kale.
Yields 6 to 8 servings
2 C. white jasmine or basmati rice
1 to 2 bunches kale, stemmed and packed, about 8 cups
4 T. virgin coconut oil
3 C. diced sweet onion
Bring an 8-quart pot of cold water to a boil (for blanching kale).
Place rice in strainer and rinse with cold water. Drain rice well and pour it into heavy 6-quart saucepan with 4 cups cold water and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Rest rice 10 minutes. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and cover saucepan; simmer rice 15 minutes exactly.
Remove pan from heat and rest 15 minutes exactly. Remove cover and fluff rice with fork; place cover back on. This will keep rice from turning into cement.
When kale blanching water is at full boil, stir and press in the kale leaves. Boil until bright green and tender, about 4 minutes. Drain kale well and when cool, press out excess moisture. Dice kale into 1/2-inch squares. Set aside.
Heat coconut oil over medium heat in 12-inch skillet. Add onions and cook until tender but not browned. Season onions with salt and freshly ground pepper as desired.
Stir in chopped kale and heat through. Gently fold vegetable mixture into rice or vice versa. Taste pilaf and season with salt if necessary. Serve warm.