Peter Gordon: The good oil on coconut

By Peter Gordon

Coconut cream is divine in both sweet and savoury food. Photo / Babiche Marten
Coconut cream is divine in both sweet and savoury food. Photo / Babiche Marten

The executive chef of dine by Peter Gordon at SkyCity answers your cuisine questions.

Inspired by a recent trip to Bali I have been trying my hand at Indonesian cookery. I have query on the use of coconut milk. Recipes often fail to say what type to use. I have an impression that in curry-like dishes thin milk is usually fine. Cooking a rendang, do I require the thick milk, as the meat fries towards the end? I have been using tinned coconut milk and there seems to be a wide range in fat content of similarly labelled tins. Some are about 7 per cent fat, others about 17 per cent and some about 28 per cent. Do these correspond to thin medium and thick milk?
Best wishes, Paul Berks

Coconut milk, just like cow's milk comes in all sorts of differing fat contents and to be honest it's more about your particular diet than anything else as to what you should buy. I'm the world's biggest fan of coconut cream (in fact anything coconutty) but I was "warned" against eating too much because it's thought the amount of fat present, which comes from the coconut oil, is high in saturated fats and can raise cholesterol. Unwilling to believe that it might not be good for me, I've researched and found that all evidence is conflicting.

The amount of fat however will cling to my hips, so really it's a choice how rich I like my curries, rendang and everything else. In the old days (as in two to three years ago!) when you opened a can of coconut milk it was usually in two parts in the can - the solid fatty cream at the top and the milky stuff in the bottom. These days they seem to put an emulsifier in the liquid which means you get a uniform "cream" when you pour it out which isn't so bad, but it does prevent you from separating the two.

If you are making a curry that will take a lot of cooking, but still be served wet, then the more liquid you have to begin with the better as it will inevitably evaporate when cooked. It's likely that a can of high or low-fat coconut milk costs almost the same, so for value for money you'd be best to use high fat and add extra water - or else you'll be paying for the manufacturer to water it down before canning - and you'll end up with less coconut for your buck. If you're cooking a Southeast Asian curry paste in the traditional way by cooking the coconut cream down until it splits and becomes fatty (once the liquids have evaporated) then you also definitely need to use high fat. If you were making a cocktail, say the ubiquitous pina colada, then you'd be better off with slightly thinner coconut as the ice cubes can cause the fat to set which can be a little unpleasant. Of course, you can water it down with more rum and no-one will be any the wiser!

So, the difference between high and low fat coconut is really in how you want to use it. In a cold drink you need to decide if you want a rich slightly creamy taste, or a more refreshing character. Likewise in a curry, ice cream or custard - do you want fatty rich, or light and more delicate?

It's very easy to make your own coconut cream if you can get your hands on a fresh coconut, whose husk you need to remove. For pure white coconut cream, you'll also want to peel off the brown "skin" that surrounds the flesh - the easiest way is to cut it into wedges and use a potato peeler. Grate the flesh and place in a blender (a food processor is ok, but a blender is better), just a tightly packed cup at a time, and add two cups hot water (not boiling). Pulse it in the blender until smoothish. Tip into a fine sieve and push as much liquid through as you can using the back of a ladle. Do the same with the rest of the coconut flesh. This is now officially coconut cream. You could put it into the fridge to settle and set and all the rich fatty stuff will float to the top where you can scoop it off (add to your next raw fish salad or porridge - absolutely delicious). You can then put the pulp that didn't go through the sieve back into the blender and use equal amounts of pulp and hot water and blend finely then pour through a sieve and you'll have coconut milk. Mix this with the coconut cream and you'll have a far superior liquid than comes in tins and your friends will be well impressed!

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- NZ Herald

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