Tropical Fruits Month:
Global Ingredient Profile
by Kate Heyhoe
He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a heat source, habitation for himself and a heritage for his children.
— A South Seas saying, from Norman Van Aken's The Great Exotic Fruit Book.
Coconut has been called the most useful tree in the world. Rope, soap, wine, textiles, baskets, cups and bowls, medicines and boat and building materials—all are byproducts of the versatile coconut palm. The fruit of the coconut tree is equally as versatile, producing a wide range of cooking ingredients.
The brown, hairy coconuts sold in western markets are not what you see growing on a tree. The coconut "nut," the item commonly sold in western markets, is actually a drupe: a fruit with a hard stone (cherries and peaches are also drupes). But you must go through several layers before reaching the nut.
The coconut layers start with an outer shell that is smooth and ivory or gray when ripe. Beneath that lies a brown, hairy husk of loose, coarse fibers. This husky layer covers a hard, brown woody shell, with a small triangle of three indented "eyes." Under this layer is a thin brown skin, which protects the interior kernel, where the white coconut meat and juicy liquid center reside.
The coconut palm is believed to hail from Malaysia and now grows throughout the Pacific Rim, India, parts of Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
Be sure to know your coconut products, as cooking with the wrong ingredient can result in an unintended or surprising dish.
- Water coconut—The white jelly-like flesh of an unripe coconut. Water coconut can be eaten with a spoon. (This is not the same as the liquid from a ripe coconut.) When ripe, the flesh solidifies and becomes coconut meat.
- Coconut juice—The liquid in the center of the nut or kernel. Also known as coconut water, it's often used to nourish newborn babies and in tropical mixed drinks. Not the same as coconut milk.
- Coconut leaves—These are used to wrap foods for cooking.
- Coconut meat—The firm, sweet, nutty white flesh scraped from the center of the coconut. You can chop or grate it fresh, or buy it packaged in plastic bags or cans. (Peel the brown skin from the coconut meat before using.) Packaged coconut in most western markets is sold sweetened and not appropriate for savory recipes, but you can find unsweetened coconut in Asian markets.
- Coconut milk—The liquid squeezed and strained from grated coconut meat simmered with water. Available canned, frozen or as a dried powder. Used frequently in cooking, especially in curries, soups, and sauces.
- Coconut cream—The first extraction of coconut milk, this liquid is quite thick, with a ratio of about 4 parts coconut to 1 part water. Available canned or frozen, and used frequently in cooking and especially in thick sauces and desserts. Often called thick coconut milk, it also rises to the top of a settled can of coconut milk and can be spooned off from it.
- Cream of coconut—Not the same as coconut cream, this sweetened liquid is used for drinks and desserts.
- Copra—Coconut meat, usually refers to dried coconut meat.
- Coconut oil—Pressed from copra and used in cooking, cosmetics, ice cream toppings, crackers and soap. Unlike most other non-animal fats, the oil is very high in saturated fat (12 out of 13 fat grams). Coconut oil also appears when coconut milk or cream is heated to the point of separating.
- Coconut palm vinegar—This mildly acidic vinegar is used in Filipino dishes and is made from the sap of the coconut palm. Use it in marinades, salads, soups and sauces.
- Coconut wine—made from fermented coconut palm sap. Further distilling results in the potent drink arak.
Coconut Cooking Tips
- Coconut milk and cream will curdle, and if heated too much the oil will separate out. To avoid this when cooking, stir constantly over low heat, uncovered, and never let the mixture boil. Use a wide spatula and a lift-and-turn motion. In Indian curries, as soon as a thin film of oil rises to the top the dish is done. A bit of cornstarch helps prevent curdling.
- Coconut milk spoils quickly. Use it within a few hours at room temperature, or refrigerate for no more than 2 days. Freeze for any longer period.
- Canned coconut milk will have a layer of coconut cream on top of a thinner liquid. Shake the can up before using if you want a thicker liquid. But some recipes call for either the thick cream or the thinner liquid, in which case you want to scrape the cream from the top of the can. (Chill the can to make separating easier.)
- One coconut yields about 3 to 4 cups grated meat.
- Select coconuts that are heavy for their size, and slosh with liquid inside when shaken. Avoid ones with damp or leaky eyes. The peak season is October through December.
- To drain the coconut water, pierce two of the eyes with a screwdriver or ice pick. Drink the liquid plain, or chilled or on ice. (Do not confuse the coconut liquid with coconut milk.)
- To open a coconut, use the back of a cleaver to repeatedly tap a circle around the center of the nut, from the eyes to the opposite end, until the nut cracks slightly. Pour out the water over a bowl, wedging the edge of the cleaver into the opening. Tap sharply again around the perimeter and the nut should break apart into two halves.
Now that you've got the basics down, it's time to go coco-loco!
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