Alice Medrich’s New Classic Coconut Macaroons [Food52] (photo by James Ransom)
As the weather begins to warm and the sun's rays grace us for longer periods of the day, it’s easy to get antsy about the arrival of spring and, eventually, glorious summer. With the warmer seasons, spring and summer flavors beckon, and coconut ranks high on the list of foods we're looking forward to incorporating into our meals in the coming months.
Coconut is often associated with exotic locales and tropical dishes, but a number of different cuisines have also embraced the fruit with open arms, mixing it into everything from granola to curries, panna cotta to baked fish. And while the nutty fruit can truly be enjoyed year-round in all of its different forms, coconut truly feels at home in foods reflective of the early spring season: it maintains the richness of the winter foods we've relied on thus far to get us through the chilly weather, while hinting at warmer temperatures and the accompanying fresher, lighter preparations to come.
Spring is also a season of change, and often frenetic activity; in which case, as far as running to the grocery store is concerned, we're keeping an eye out for foods that can work double duty, if not triple or quadruple. And if you're looking for a fruit that'll work overtime, look no further than the coconut. From its nutrient-packed water to its naturally sweet, shreddable meat, coconut is as generous a fruit as you could wish for, lending each of its distinct parts to a number of different culinary applications. Go ahead, take advantage of its generosity!
From pina coladas to coconut rice, the Caribbean has a lock on all things coconut. Coconut milk-laden dishes simmered with curry powder, chicken, pigeon peas or beans, or a variety of vegetables are common, as are coconut-crusted meat or fish, and coconut milk flan.
Known for its use of coconut milk in warmly spiced curries and simmered stews, you can also find coconut incorporated into a number of other Southeast Asian dishes, from simple, stir-fried preparations of vegetables to sweet chutneys. Coconut sugar has also served as a natural sweetener in this region for centuries.
Philippines, Indonesia & the Pacific Islands
The largest worldwide producer of coconuts, the people of the Philippines regard the coconut plant as the "Tree of Life," due to its universally life-sustaining gifts. Filipino, Indonesian and Pacific Island cuisines often utilize the young, green coconut (in the form of fresh coconut water and sliced coconut), as well as coconut milk, cream, and shredded coconut in dishes from simmered coconut milk-based soups and stews to coconut-dusted rice flour sweets.
Sticky-sweet, hyper-processed shredded coconut may well be many Americans’ only experience with coconut, but there's so much more out there. Coconut cream pie, macaroons, ambrosia fruit salad, and the adopted German chocolate cake all represent hallmarks of the American coconut spectrum.
Coconut Milk Rice Pudding with Citrus and Ginger [Food52] (photo by James Ransom)
The Many Sides of Coconut
When using coconut oil for cooking and baking purposes, always choose oil designated as "virgin," meaning the oil has not been chemically treated. Coconut oil is often used as a vegan substitute for butter or oil in baked goods, as in this Gluten-Free Gingerbread Cake, or these Barley Roasted Plum Scones.
Coconut oil also has a relatively high smoke point (meaning it won’t start to smoke when heated to a high temperature, as more-delicate olive oil does). Coconut oil has also been shown to contain a more beneficial combination of saturated fats than other refined oils, making coconut oil an ideal alternative candidate for pan- or deep-frying.
Praised for its electrolyte-replenishing and hydrating qualities, coconut water has been in the spotlight of the health and culinary worlds for some time now, but it has also been a staple of Ayurvedic health practices for centuries. The water is a naturally-occurring juice that can be found pooled in the center of young, green fruits' meat, and has a slightly sweet flavor.
Milk & Cream
Made by squeezing the juice out of shredded coconut meat, you can also make a homemade version of coconut milk by soaking dried, shredded unsweetened coconut in hot water overnight, and then blending to a smooth consistency. To create coconut cream, simply place your homemade coconut milk in a covered container in the fridge -- the cream will naturally rise to the top, and can be skimmed off for separate use.
Creamy coconut milk is often paired with curries and heavily spiced dishes to smooth out the heat. Southern Thai dishes utilize coconut milk’s natural creaminess and fruity notes to complement citrusy galangal and lemongrass, and counter spicy chiles.
Coconut milk can also be used in place of dairy milk or cream in vegan baked goods, to add dairy-free richness to soups, or to plump up any number of dishes that call for creaminess, like flan, cajeta (Mexican milk-based caramel), rice pudding or panna cotta. Even truffles can benefit from a hit of the creamy stuff. We would be remiss if we left out that classic cocktail, the pina colada, as well, wherein rich coconut cream blends with fresh pineapple chunks and heady dark rum to render dessert in a glass.
Coconut milk has also recently hit markets in yogurt form, which can be substituted for dairy-based yogurt in most recipes.
Roasted Butternut Squash Coconut Curry Puree/Soup [Food52] (photo by Sarah Shatz)
Meat: Flaked, Shredded & Grated
The nutty, chewy, naturally sweet qualities of shredded coconut make it ideal for adding interest to desserts and sweet treats of all kinds. A natural pairing with chocolate, pineapple, and toasted nuts, coconut's subtle flavor profile lends itself to playing a starring or supporting role in any favorite sweet you can imagine.
Macaroons are a natural choice for the shredded stuff, but get wild with sprinkling it as a substantial garnish on creamy desserts like Chocolate Sweet Potato pudding, or baking it into cakes and sweet breads.
Sweet breakfast classics like French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, and granola provide the perfect foundation for a sprinkling of coconut. Drizzle a coconut-infused maple syrup on top to amp up the nutty flavor.
Shredded coconut can also lend subtle sweetness to savory dishes, like this Southern Indian-inflected stir-fry or Carrot Thoren. Mixed with breadcrumbs and nuts or seeds, shredded or flaked coconut livens up a crust for chicken, fish, or tofu.
The desiccated meat of the coconut has also been made into a naturally gluten-free, high-protein, and high-fiber baking flour, which can be blended with a mixture of flours in sweet baked goods like this Mango Buttermilk Upside-Down Cake. Make sure not to use exclusively coconut flour in your recipes, though -- you can substitute up to 20% of the flour called for with coconut flour.
Made from the dried sap of the coconut palm, coconut sugar has the flavor of earthy brown sugar, and can be swapped in for white or brown sugar in any usage, at a 1:1 ratio. Coconut sugar is rich in micronutrients, and is considered a low glycemic index food, making it a winning substitute for more refined sweeteners.
Lime ‘n the Coconut Mini Cheesecakes [Food52] (photo by James Ransom)
Coconut Quinoa Pudding
Crispy Coconut Tofu with Burning Rings of Fire
Coconut Goji Ice Cream with Yacon Syrup and Toasted Macadamia Dust
Toasted Coconut Gelato [Food52]
Toasted Almond and Coconut Quinoa Porridge [Food52]
Rum Glazed Coconut Bread Pudding [Food52]
Are you nutty for coconut? How do you like to enjoy this generous fruit? Share your comments below!
Like this post? See last week's From Scratch topic: A Guide to Sandwich Cookies.