Oil and more: This tropical treat
has taken the country by storm.
By Linda Melone
Once upon a time, coconut was regarded by American cooks, when it was regarded at all, as an occasional cake ingredient and shrimp coating. Today coconut is a hot item on store shelves. What changed?
For one thing, coconut joins red wine and dark chocolate on the list of decadent foods with surprising health benefits. What’s more, it lends itself to a wide variety of culinary options. In fact, the entire coconut can be used in some way: the meat, juice, water, milk and oil of the coconut can be added to foods, whirled into beverages and more. “You can even grind up and use the shell as an exfoliator,” says Camilla V. Saulsbury, PhD, food writer and author of The Complete Coconut Book (Robert Rose).
Although coconut products seem like the new hot superfood, many different cultures have long used coconut as both a food and medicine. Its scientific name, Cocos nucifera, was so dubbed by early Spanish explorers for the mature coconut’s three indentations (eyes). It translates to “monkey face,” in reference to the mature nut hairy appearance.
Healthy Fat and More
Even though it’s all the rage, the value of coconut’s high fat content has been under much debate. A cup of shredded coconut contains 283 calories, 7 grams of dietary fiber, 3 grams of protein and 27 grams of fat—mostly the saturated type often linked to cardiovascular disease.
But coconut fat isn’t the same as saturated fat found in animal products. “In fact, coconut contains a type of fat that differs from both saturated and unsaturated fat,” says Bruce Fife, ND, author of The Coconut Miracle Cookbook (Avery/Penguin). “Coconut oil is predominantly made up of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), whereas most dietary fats are made up of long chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Our bodies process fats differently depending on the length of the fat molecule. The vast majority of the health benefits of coconut are from the MCT fatty acids.”
For example, MCTs are more easily digested by the body than long chain fatty acids. “MCTs are used in infant formulas for this reason,” says Fife. “Mother’s milk contains MCTs.” MCTs do not require bile salts for digestion, making them easier to digest for people with malabsorption syndromes such as Crohn’s disease.
“All milk contains some MCTs,” says Fife, “but coconut oil contains 63% MCT oils versus only 11% to 12% in dairy. It also contains antimicrobial properties.”
Athletes often use MCT oil as a quick energy source as it’s not as easily stored as fat in the body. In addition, coconut oil increases the absorption of other vitamins and minerals in your diet. “Your body absorbs up to 16 times more of vitamins than you’d normally absorb,” says Fife, who believes this happens because coconut oil is rapidly absorbed, bringing vitamins and minerals along with it.
Coconut in the Kitchen
It’s easy to incorporate coconut into your diet. The various parts of the coconut can be used as an ingredient in recipes or simply added as a topping, stirred into drinks or eaten on its own.
Fresh Coconut Meat
“Most people are familiar with the mature coconut meat, the brown hairy coconut you can get in grocery stores,” says Saulsbury, “but many have never seen a fresh coconut, which you can usually only find in Asian markets.”
Fresh, young coconuts possess either a green shell or a white husk (if the green shell is taken off) and contain more water and a soft, gel-like meat inside. Mature coconuts have firm meat and less water. “You can scoop out the coconut meat of a young, fresh coconut and eat it as is,” says Saulsbury. “Pureeing the flesh in a high-speed blender makes an instant gelatin.”
Add a little vanilla extract or coconut milk, water or fruit juice for a refreshing quick dessert.
The flesh of a mature coconut can be grated like cheese or chopped and put on salads or soups. “It’s also good as a snack straight up,” says Saulsbury. You can also add it to smoothies.
Coconut meat is available in other forms. Fresh frozen is usually the flaked version from a fresh, mature coconut and works best grated or flaked. “You lose some of the crunchiness versus fresh, but frozen coconut is great in baked goods and on top of morning cereals,” says Saulsbury. Dried, flaked, unsweetened coconut can be added to anything you cook, says Stephanie Pedersen, author of Coconut (Sterling). “Add it to a pot of brown rice or other grain, to hot breakfast cereal or a chopped salad or baked goods. Start with 1/4 cup dried coconut per recipe.” Also try it as part of the “breading” for chicken strips, fish or shrimp and add it to smoothies and pureed soups. (Just double-check the package to make sure you’re not using the sweetened variety.
Extracted from the meat of mature coconuts, coconut oil may be either virgin or non-virgin. Virgin coconut oil undergoes minimal processing and retains its coconut flavor. Non-virgin or expressed coconut oil is flavorless and will not impart a coconut flavor when you use it in cooking. Coconut oil differs from other cooking oils in that it is solid at room temperature but turns liquid at 76 degrees. This explains why it’s hard to use in salad dressings, since pouring it on cold greens solidifies the oil.
“Cooking with coconut oil requires no special skills or training,” says Elizabeth Nyland, blogger and author of Cooking With Coconut Oil (The Countryman Press). “It can be used for just about any cooking, especially higher-heat methods, although I do not recommend it for making scrambled eggs.” It works well for sautéing vegetables and even popping popcorn. The oil itself can be described as slightly sweet with a very tiny hint of coconut.
Coconut oil may be substituted 1:1 for any recipe that calls for cooking oil. “If your recipe calls for liquid fat, melt coconut oil and keep the other ingredients at room temperature to keep the coconut oil from solidifying,” says Nyland. For recipes requiring a solid fat, use it in its more solid state but do not refrigerate it. Coconut oil can be safely stored at room temperature.
Made by mixing shredded, fresh coconut meat with water, with the resulting fluid then squeezed through a sieve. The thick, creamy coconut milk is most often used for Thai curries and stews.
“You can use coconut milk cup-for-cup as a substitute for dairy milk in baking,” says Pedersen. It also makes a great substitute for evaporated milk in pumpkin pie, can be added to smoothies or made into hot chocolate. “For a rich pot of grains I replace half the liquid with coconut milk,” says Pedersen. You can also use it in pureed soups.
Pedersen recommends skipping the cartons of coconut-based “milk” in the dairy aisle, saying, “They’re filled with water and emulsifiers, thickeners, sweeteners, flavorings and preservatives.” Instead, look for additive-free canned coconut milk. “Just be sure to shake it before using it to distribute the coconut cream that rises to the top,” Pedersen advises.
Made from the fresh meat of mature coconuts, coconut flour takes some experimentation to use in baking. “It’s popular for those on gluten-free diets and with Paleo eaters,” says Pedersen. “It’s low in carbs and high in fiber. However, it behaves nothing like wheat flour. It requires a lot of eggs to work right.”
In general, recipes using coconut flour require one egg for every ounce of coconut flour used. “You’ll have better luck looking for recipes specifically designed for coconut flour rather than using it as a straight substitute for wheat flour, otherwise you may end up with a gummy product if you use only coconut flour,” says Pedersen. Coconut flour works well for breading fish and chicken before frying.
Looking for a source of healthy fat and satisfying taste? Look no further than the coconut.
Red Lentil Curry Stew
This recipe uses coconut three ways: oil, milk and shredded. “The spices used in curries contain polyphenols that can help protect the body against cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as
help reduce blood glucose levels,” notes holistic nutritionist Stephanie Pedersen, author of Coconut: The Complete Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Superfood (Sterling).
2 tbsp liquid coconut oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
2 tsp mild Madras curry powder
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 cups canned coconut milk
2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 ½ cups dried red lentils
2 cups frozen green peas or mixed vegetables (small pieces)
½ cup chopped cashews
¼ cup unsweetened shredded dried coconut
1 tbsp cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place oil in large skillet over medium heat; sauté garlic and ginger about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.
2. Stir in curry powder and turmeric; sauté another 30 seconds.
3. Add coconut milk, broth and lentils. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook 15 minutes, or until lentils soften.
4. Stir in frozen vegetables, cashews and shredded coconut, and cook 3 minutes.
5. Remove from heat. Stir in cilantro, salt and pepper, and serve.
Bruce Fife says coconut milk spoils quickly once the can is opened; refrigerate any leftover milk in an airtight container for up to four days. On the other hand, he says coconut oil’s stability means it doesn’t need refrigeration; extend its shelf life by storing it in a cool place.
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
2 tbsp coconut oil (melted)
1. Put all of the ingredients, except for the coconut oil, in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to cool.
2. Combine the coconut milk, orange juice, pineapple and banana in a blender and blend until smooth.
3. With the blender running, pour the melted coconut oil into the blender. Blend for 1 minute.
Chocolate Avocado Mousse
This mousse is 100% Paleo, gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, vegan and absolutely delicious, says Elizabeth Nyland. “The texture coming out of the fridge is amazing and even stellar right out of the blender. Don’t fear the avocado, you can’t even tell it’s in there.” It keeps for at least a day or two, covered, in the fridge.
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 oz 100% pure dark chocolate
3 tbsp cacao powder
1 tsp instant coffee
6 pitted medjool dates
2 large ripe avocados, pitted
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Set a small metal bowl atop a small saucepan of water, filled about 1/3 of the way. Set on high heat until it boils, then turn down to a simmer.
2. Melt the first four ingredients in the bowl, stirring occasionally. Set aside while preparing the next part of the recipe.
3. In a blender or food processor, add the remaining ingredients and blend until almost smooth.
4. Add in the chocolate mixture and continue to blend until completely smooth.
5. Scoop or pipe into glass bowls. Place in refrigerator to firm up for four hours or eat it soft and warm straight out of the blender.
Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Nyland, guiltykitchen.com