The coconut is one versatile nut. Here's how to buy, crack and cook with it.
Highly saturated and highly healthy, coconut oil is a great substitute for all hydrogenated oils and has a myriad topical uses. Easily absorbed by the body for quick energy, it is nature’s best source of lauric acid, an essential saturated fatty acid that enhances the immune system and is good for the gut as it protects against viruses, parasites and yeasts. Coconut oil tolerates high temperatures, making it great for frying. It also provides a lovely lightness and a uniquely sweet fragrance when used in baking. Coconut oil keeps extremely well at room temperature stored in your pantry, where it may appear as a solid in the colder months.
Use it to fry fresh fish and vegetables and to cook popcorn. Bake banana bread, carrot cake and scones with it, or use it in your biscuit bases for cheesecakes and pies. It makes for light, fresh homemade mayonnaise, hollandaise and salsa verde and blended with nuts it makes a fragrant peanut butter.
Though the mature coconuts we buy have significantly less liquid than young immature drinking coconuts, it is still a refreshingly sweet, low-calorie/high-potassium drink. To extract the water, pierce the softer of the three "eyes'' of the coconut using a corkscrew, or lightly hammer a chopstick into it, then drain the liquid out into a jug. You can buy bottled coconut water from supermarkets and specialty food stores.
Use coconut water in your drinks, smoothies and cocktails, as a replacement for stock in soups and curries, to cook rice in, or to poach an egg or fresh fish in. Coconut water can also be combined with coconut flesh and blended to extract coconut milk and cream.
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Coconut milk and cream
Coconut cream is the thick non-liquid part that separates and rises to the top of the coconut milk. Though coconut milk and cream are available in cans we encourage you to make your own. Still full of its valuable coconut oil and rich in taste and texture, it is well worth the effort and freezes well.
• To make coconut cream, blend the water and flesh of 2 coconuts with 1-2 cups hot water to form a smooth slurry. Refrigerate or freeze in containers.
• To make coconut milk, follow as above with 3-5 cups hot water, strain the milk through muslin and refrigerate or freeze. Use coconut milk and cream in soups, sauces, curries, pancake batters, smoothies and blended drinks. Use to cook rice, poach chicken, prepare bean and whole grain dishes, or to saute fresh vegetables in. Wonderful in raw fish dishes, it is also great in fish parcels with Asian spices steamed on the barbecue. Add fresh coconut cream into baking, or whip with regular cream to serve with dessert.
Packaged desiccated (shredded) coconut is often loaded with preservatives. You can make your own freshly shredded coconut by extracting, grating and drying fresh coconut meat in the oven. Or even easier, look for whole dried coconuts at Asian grocers. They are ready for grating or for use in cooking and for toasting.
Use freshly shredded coconut where desiccated coconut is called for. Mix coconut with nuts, herbs and breadcrumbs to coat fried fish or chicken breasts. Combine with Asian spices to coat lamb cutlets before barbecuing and serving with a spicy mint tzatziki. Mix with yoghurt and lemon zest to serve with sweets. Toasted shredded coconut can also be pounded in a mortar and pestle to form a paste, or coconut butter, called kerisik. This can be stored in the fridge and used in rendang and laksa dishes, as well as mixed with chocolate in baking
How to buy fresh coconut
Make sure the coconuts are heavy, and still full of their water (shake them against your ear). Store them in the fridge once
opened and use promptly, or grate and freeze the fresh meat.
To open a coconut
Once you’ve drained the water (see above), sit the coconut on a teatowel with the eyes facing out to the side and bang the coconut around the middle with a hammer or back of a meat cleaver, to crack it in half. Bang again to break it down to smaller pieces. Remove the flesh from the shell of each piece using a blunt table knife. The soft brown skin that remains on the flesh is edible or peel it off for pure white pieces.