Thursday, December 8, 2022

Try cooking with fresh coconut: it’s plentiful, inexpensive, healthy and delicious

Having lived in Mexico for more than a decade, I’ve learned – sometimes by choice, sometimes out of necessity — to adapt many of my favorite recipes to incorporate local ingredients.

All in all, I have lots of fun in the kitchen, often discovering pleasantly surprising and delicious dishes and combinations hitherto unimagined, either because of cost or availability.

A good example is coconuts. Where I live – Mazatlán — fresh coconuts are easy to find all year round. Vendors sell them from street carts or on the beach for about 40 pesos apiece, whacking off a small opening at the top with a machete and inserting a straw for drinking the fresh, sweet, preferably ice-cold coconut water.

When you’re done with that, they’ll whack the coconut again, scrape out the meat with a special tool that looks kind of like an ice cream scoop, and give it back to you with toothpicks or a fork for eating. Locals like to doctor up the coconut meat with lime juice, chile powder and all kinds of hot sauces; I like it just plain.

One day I realized (in what I like to call a “duh” moment) that I could get the whole shebang “para llevar” – to go – and take it home to use instead of canned sweetened “coconut milk.”

cutting coconuts
There is no shortage of coconuts for enjoying on the spot, or taking home and using in the kitchen.

They’ll put the chunks of coconut meat and the water in a plastic bag, tied at the top. Then I just whir the fresh meat and water in a blender and voila! add it to a curry or smoothie. Sometimes I’ll shred the coconut meat and dry it in my dehydrator for using in granola, fruit salads, cookies, etc.

Coconuts, believe it or not, have seasons too. There are certain times of the year when they’re young and new, and the flesh will be softer, almost custard-like, and sweeter; later, as they’re on the tree longer, the meat gets that familiar crispy-hard texture we’re used to.

Personally, I prefer them when they’re tiernos – soft – but feel myself fortunate that I can have them all year round, in whatever state.

Here are a couple of my favorite go-to recipes. Even if you’re not living in paradise like I am, you can still make yourself a little taste of the tropics!

Oatmeal with coconut, mango & pineapple

This is one of my favorite easy breakfasts. Why use plain old raisins when you can have this delightful tropical treat instead?!

  • 2 cups water
  • 2/3 cup whole oats
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 2-3 Tbsp. dried or fresh mangos, chopped small
  • 2-3 Tbsp. dried pineapple, chopped small
  • 1-2 Tbsp. dried coconut, unsweetened if possible

Place water, cinnamon, coconut and dried fruit in small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Whisk in oatmeal; bring to boil again. Turn off heat, cover and let stand 3 minutes. Sweeten to taste and serve with milk or yogurt. Serves 1.

Dennis’s green curry

This recipe is a bit complex, but the flavors make it well worth your while. 

  • 2-3 sweet potatoes or 1 small butternut squash
  • 2 coarsely chopped shallots or 1 yellow onion
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh ginger root, peeled & minced
  • 2 jalapenos or serrano green chiles, to taste
  • ½ cup plus 3 Tbsp. water
  • ¾ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Meat & water from 1-2 fresh coconuts, blended, or 1 can coconut milk (unsweetened)
  • 1 Tbsp. each sugar and salt
  • About 1 cup chicken, fish, shrimp or tofu, cut in bite-size pieces
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

Combine shallots or onion, garlic, ginger, chiles, 3 Tbsp. water, ½ cup cilantro. Blend in blender or chop & mix well. You want a paste. Use a mortar and pestle if need be. Set aside.

Put about ½ cup fresh blended coconut “milk” into a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. (If using canned coconut milk, shake well first.) Cook, stirring a little, for about 3 minutes.

Add the paste and cook for 1-2 minutes, mashing, scraping and stirring it all together. Add the rest of the coconut milk, the remaining ½ cup water, the sugar, salt and chicken, fish, shrimp or tofu.

Raise heat to high and bring the curry to a rolling boil. Stir well, reduce heat to maintain a gentle boil and continue cooking till meat is ready, about 15 minutes. (Tofu may need less cooking time.)

Meanwhile cut all but a few basil leaves crosswise into thin strips. When curry is cooked stir in the basil strips and remaining ¼ cup cilantro. Garnish with 1-2 whole basil leaves. Serve with basmati or other white rice. Yield: 2-3 servings.

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