Coo Coo for Coconuts
Somewhere in the 50's, coconut oil got a bad rap due to its high levels of saturated fats. Coconut oil does indeed have the highest content of saturated fat of all the vegetable oils. With fat phobia prevalent in the West, it's not surprising that coconuts (oil, milk, juice and all) got put on the shelf.
Saturated fats aren't all that bad. We actually need them. We need them to maintain cell structure, for immunity, and to utilize essential fatty acids, just to name a few. As a saturated fat, coconut oil has some powerful benefits.
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Coconut oil is one of the most stable fats, meaning that it has a high smoking point so you can cook with it at moderately high temperatures without having to worry about the heat changing its chemical makeup, making it harmful to eat. For this reason alone, it's my number one choice for sautéing. Coconut oil also has a good long shelf life, lasting much longer than its poly- and mono-unsaturated counterparts, like canola, safflower, soy, peanut or olive oil. It also makes a handy pantry item for cooking burns or sunburns.
What's best is that nearly half of this saturated fat is in the form of lauric acid, which is only found abundantly in one other food: human breast milk. This fatty acid acts as an antiviral and antibacterial agent to rid the body of disease-causing organisms. According to Naturopath Michael Murray in his book The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, approximately 12 grams of lauric acid are provided in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, 3 tablespoons of creamed coconut, half a can of coconut milk or half a cup of dried coconut meat.
But that's not all... High in electrolytes, coconut juice (the water inside the coconut) provides energy before and after exercise, on hot days, or when recovering from an illness or dehydration. Electrolytes are minerals that charge nerves and make us "go". For more information on electrolyte minerals, see my blog post Electrolytes for Energy and Endurance. Everyone needs electrolytes, and drinking coconut juice is a natural (and delicious!) way to get them.
What's the Difference Between Coconut Milk and Coconut Water?
Coconut Juice, or coconut water, is the pure, clear liquid that pours right out of a young coconut shell. A good young coconut will be filled with this nectar. The juice is very sweet and has a soothing quality, but it may take a newbie a few swigs to adjust their palate to the exotic taste. I buy cans of it for everyday drinking (my favorite brand is Amy and Brian's with pulp, found at natural food stores) but the ultimate is to open a fresh young coconut yourself and savor the sweetness. Nothing beats it.
Coconut Milk is the inside flesh of the coconut pureed with water. More or less water is used, and "lite" versions can now be purchased that have less meat and more water. I recommend the full-fat varieties, as they have a deeper, richer flavor and more nutritional benefits. Again, making your own at home from a fresh coconut can't be beat. I use the milk for smoothies and curries.
I've Seen Green, White and Brown Coconuts
There are different varieties of coconut palms, but basically when purchasing, they can be found either young or mature. A young coconut (see pictorial below) is sold inside its casing, or husk. It is a large green nut and is picked before it naturally falls to the ground. The husk is carved for ease of opening, and what is left is the white inside of the husk, carved into a point at the top end. The inner shell is easy to pry open and the young meat is soft, sweet and almost gelatinous. Young coconuts are found in the produce section of natural food stores or Asian markets.
A mature coconut husk turns light brown on the tree. The husk is completely removed and what is left when purchasing is the hard, round inner shell. Mature coconuts take a bit more strength to open, and the meat is thicker, harder and chewier. The water is usually bitter.
How to Open a Young Coconut - Yes, You CAN try this at home!
(written directions below)
STEP 1 - Exposing the hard shell from under the white casing
Lay the whole white coconut on its side in front of you with the pointed side of the coconut towards your cutting hand. Use a good chef's knife (no, you do not need a butcher knife) to cut diagonally into the white fibrous casing along the pointed edges. If you are doing it correctly and going deep enough into the casing, you'll come across the hard shell underneath. Essentially, you are cutting along the diagonal point to expose the hard shell underneath.
STEP 2 - Whacking the shell
Sit the coconut upright on the flat end (it should now have the top of the hard round shell exposed, facing upward). Using the heal end of the knife (the thick bottom corner) whack into the coconut shell at a 40 degree angle. Do not use the blade, use the thick corner heal. If done correctly, the heal of the knife should be sticking into the coconut shell a bit.
STEP 3 - Wedging the coconut shell open
Use the heal of the knife to wedge the coconut open a bit, by wedging the knife back and forward, up and down, to widen the crack. Wedge the heal of the knife into the crack, allowing a bigger gap to pry open.
STEP 4: Opening the shell
Remove the knife and use your fingers to pry off the top of the shell. The top of the shell should pull off surprisingly easy in one nice piece.
STEP 5 - Getting the water
The coconut should be full of water. Pour this delicious nectar into a large bowl or mason jar. The water should be clear; if it is pink or purple, it is going bad and should be discarded.
STEP 6: Scooping out the meat
Run a thin, flexible plastic or metal spatula between the delicate white flesh and the hard shell to remove the meat. The meat should be soft and white; if gooey, pink or purple, the meat is going bad and should be discarded.
Raw Pad Thai
Fresh young coconut meat replaces conventional rice noodles in this sweet and spicy Thai dish. Don't be frightened just 'cause you've never opened a coconut -- It's easier than you think...
Make these dreamy summer treats at home with a popsicle tray, or ditch the plastic by using Dixie cups and wooden craft sticks, directions below. This quick and easy version uses canned coconut milk; if you are up to the task, using fresh coconut meat and its water are ideal...
Toasted Shredded Coconut / Thai-Style Trail Mix
Toasting coconut brings out the natural sugars and hightens the coconut flavors. Use it as a topping for desserts or make your own Thai-Style Trail Mix, below...
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