We're crazy for coconuts
That's right: The hairy brown ovoid is not a true nut but the stone of a drupe, which makes it related to peaches and plums.
Just check supermarket refrigerator cases, where cartons of coconut milk, creamers and spreads share space with cultured coconut products (like yogurt and kefir).
Or shelves, where cans of coconut milk, jars of coconut oil and coconut spray-oils nudge bags of shredded and flaked coconut. Or in freezers, where coconut milk desserts sit next to ice cream.
And depending on your coconut crush, there's coconut tequila, vodka and beer, plus plain and flavored coconut waters based on the thin opaque juice found inside the fruit.
Of course, cooks in Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean have long used coconut milk (made by simmering coconut meat with water, then straining) and coconut oil (pressed from the meat) to enrich dishes in the same way cooks elsewhere might use cream or butter.
Some newer products are coconut creatures of a different sort. Canned coconut milk used in a Thai curry, for example, is not the same as coconut milks found in grocery refrigerated cases.
Which means it's important to know what you're buying (check ingredient and nutrition labels carefully), then don't assume coconut products will work like similar dairy products in cooking.
Consider refrigerated cartons of coconut milk.
"The coconut milk in the can is the one that tastes so delicious," said registered dietitian Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "You're not going to get that deep coconutty flavor, taste and texture with refrigerated coconut milks."
She's a fan of coconut oil, spreading it on such fish as salmon or whitefish, so "as it cooks, it makes fish even moister."
Solid at room temperature, coconut oil has a high smoking point that makes it good for frying and sauteing.
"With coconut oil, you're adding a really nice coconut flavor to your food," she said.
Those cultured coconut milk products similar to yogurts will add a "hint of coconut" layered with fruit into a parfait, she said. But don't expect their nutrition to equal dairy products.
"Coconut, itself, is all fat with very, very little protein," Giancoli said. "So you're not going to be getting naturally occurring carbohydrates or naturally occurring protein, or maybe a tiny, tiny bit of protein.
Caribbean seafood stew on rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 pound orange roughy or tilapia, in 1-inch cubes
1 cup each, chopped: onion, green bell pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 jalapeno, seeded, finely chopped
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
3/4 cup unsweetened canned coconut milk
8 ounces medium raw shrimp, peeled, deveined
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
2 cups hot cooked rice
Stir together 1 tablespoon olive oil, the lime juice, salt and pepper in a bowl. Add fish; toss to coat. Set aside.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, green pepper, garlic and jalapeno. Cook and stir until onion is tender, 4 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and coconut milk; heat to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.
Stir in shrimp, the fish mixture and cilantro; return to boiling over medium heat. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered until fish just flakes easily with a fork and shrimp turns opaque, 5 minutes. Season to taste. Serve over rice. Sprinkle with more cilantro.
Makes 4 servings. Per serving: 474 calories, 19 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 142 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 41 g protein, 642 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Developed by the Tribune test kitchen's Corrine Kozlak
Brazilian coconut-rice pudding
1/2 cup golden or dark raisins
1/4 cup light rum or 1 teaspoon rum extract plus 1/4 cup water
3 cups water
1 cup arborio rice, rinsed until water runs clear
1 stick cinnamon, 3 inches long
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup sweetened condensed skim milk
1 cup light coconut milk
2-4 tablespoons light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon each: grated orange zest, grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup toasted shredded unsweetened dried coconut
Combine raisins and rum (or rum extract and water) in a small bowl; let soak, 15 minutes. In a large saucepan over high heat, combine water, rice, cinnamon stick and vanilla. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low; simmer, covered, until rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 20 minutes.
Stir in condensed and coconut milks. Add raisins and their liquid. Simmer, covered, until rice is very soft, 10 minutes. Stir in brown sugar, citrus zests and salt. Cook, 5 minutes. Add more sugar if desired. Cool pudding to room temperature. Discard cinnamon stick. Spoon into serving bowls or martini glasses. Refrigerate until cold. To serve, garnish with toasted coconut.
Makes 8 servings. Per serving: 309 calories, 6 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 58 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 68 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Adapted from "Steven Raichlen's Healthy Latin Cooking"
Here are just a few coconut products that might find their way into your kitchen.
Coconut, cultured: Similar in style to yogurts, kefir.
Coconut, dried: Can be sweetened or unsweetened. In flakes, shreds or chunks. Dessicated is a form of dried coconut.
Coconut, cream of: Sweetened coconut product mainly used in mixed drinks.
Coconut milk, canned: Thick product, in regular and reduced-fat (light) versions.
Coconut milk, refrigerated: Coconut cream plus water. May be fortified with calcium and vitamins; available sweetened, unsweetened, flavored.
Coconut oil: Coconut meat is pressed to produce the fat. Good for frying, sauteing.
Coconut spreads: Coconut oil is the primary ingredient; may contain other oils.
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