Oct 3, 2012

The Exotic Flavor of Coconut Milk

Hawaiian Star Fruit in Mango-Orange Sauce
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Coconuts are the fruit of the coconut palm and are growing everywhere in Hawaii. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in the cuisine here thanks to Polynesian and Asian culinary influences. If you are not familiar with coconut milk, the first thing you need to know is that there is a difference between coconut water and coconut milk. Coconut water is the liquid found inside the coconut. Coconut milk is the liquid that comes from the grated meat of a coconut. There are two grades of coconut milk, thick and thin. Thick milk can be prepared by directly squeezing grated coconut meat through cheesecloth. The squeezed coconut meat is then soaked in warm water and squeezed a second or third time for thin coconut milk. Thick milk is mainly used to make desserts and rich sauces. Thin milk is used for soups and general cooking. Here in the U.S., most consumers buy coconut milk in cans, or frozen in small blocks.

Manufacturers of canned coconut milk typically combine thin and thick milk, with the addition of water as a filler. Depending on the brand and age of the milk itself, a thicker, more paste-like consistency floats to the top of the can, and is sometimes separated and used in recipes that require coconut cream rather than coconut milk. Shaking the can prior to opening will even it out to a creamy thickness. Some brands sold in Western countries add thickening agents to prevent the milk from separating inside the can, since the separation tends to be misinterpreted as an indicator of spoilage by people unfamiliar with coconut milk. Once opened, cans of coconut milk must be refrigerated and are usually only good for a few days. If not, the milk can sour and spoil easily. Frozen coconut milk tends to stay fresh longer, which is important in dishes in which the coconut flavor is not competing with curries and other spicy dishes.

I am not alone when I say that I love the taste of coconut milk. Unsweetened coconut milk is an ingredient that adds a rich texture and exotic flavor to many different recipes–from curries to candies, and is enjoyed all over the world.

Coconut Milk Recipes:
Buttery Avocado Coconut Cream Soup
Like a Vichyssoise, a French-style potato soup, this rich soup is served cold as an appetizer.

2 tsp olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 large jalapeno pepper, seeds & membranes removed (if desired), and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced fresh mint leaves
3 avocados, peeled and cut into eights
1/2 tsp kosher salt (plus more to taste)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper (plus more to taste)
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup coconut milk
1/3 cup diced tomatoes

Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan set over medium-low heat. Add the onion and jalapeno pepper, and sweat (cook without browning) until the onion is soft and translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for additional 2 minutes. Stir in the mint. Let cool slightly. Place the avocados in a food processor or heavy-duty blender, along with 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth. Pulse until finely chopped.
Add the remaining broth, along with the onion mixture, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Pour the soup into a medium-sized bowl and stir in the lite coconut milk. Cover the soup and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve chilled, topped with diced tomatoes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chicken Thighs with Coconut Milk
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into equal sizes
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 (13.5 ounce) can light coconut milk
1 bunch chopped fresh basil for garnish

In a medium bowl, mix the cumin, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and coriander. Place the chicken in the bowl, season with salt and pepper, and rub on all sides with the spice mixture. Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a skillet over medium heat. Place the chicken in the skillet. Cook 10 to 15 minutes on each side, until no longer pink and juices run clear. Remove from heat and set aside. Heat the remaining canola oil in the skillet. Cook and stir the onion, ginger, and garlic 5 minutes, or until tender. Mix in the drained diced tomatoes and continue cooking 3 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk. Return the chicken to the skillet and continue to simmer for about 15 minutes so that the chicken can absorb the flavors of the sauce. Serve the chicken with the sauce, and garnish with the basil and serve with rice and snow peas. Makes 4 servings.

Shrimp in Coconut Milk Sauce
1/4 cup cooking oil
2 onions, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup drained whole canned tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (from a 15-ounce can)
2 1/2 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk (from two 15-ounce cans)
1/2 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, shelled
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
lime wedges, for serving

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
Add the coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, and turmeric and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the coconut milk, water, and salt and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cook at a low boil, stirring frequently, until thickened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the shrimp to the pan. Reduce the heat to low and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are just done, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Serve with the lime wedges. Makes 4 servings.

Opakapaka with Coconut-Curry Sauce
Opakapaka is also known as Hawaiian pink snapper. It is delicious served with this sauce. If you can't get opakapaka, use red snapper, or halibut.

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
4 shallots, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 1/2 teaspoons red curry paste, or 2 teaspoons curry powder
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus 1/4 teaspoon, plus more for seasoning
4 (6-ounce) pieces opakapaka fillets, skin removed
2 boxes of frozen leaf spinach, cooked as directed on package
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups cooked brown rice, for serving

In a large saute pan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken broth, coconut milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until reduced to 2 cups, about 5 minutes. Season the fish fillets with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Arrange the fish in the pan and gently shake the pan so the fish is coated with the sauce. Cover and cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 7 minutes. Arrange a pile of cooked frozen spinach in the bottom of 4 soup plates. Top with the fish fillets. Stir the cilantro, scallions, and lime juice into the sauce and season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Ladle the sauce over the fish and serve with rice. Makes 4 servings.

Creamed Spinach with Coconut Milk
This is a Caribbean recipe, however you can also use other greens like collard greens, kale or mustard greens that have been stemmed and roughly chopped. You will need to blanch these tougher greens in salted water for a couple of minutes, then follow the directions below. This recipe makes a great side dish.

1/8 cup olive oil
1 cup sweet onions, ¼" diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
16 ounces spinach leafs, washed and rinsed
1/2 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt, add to taste

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat, then add the garlic and onions and sauté just until the onions become translucent. Add spinach or other greens and sauté until spinach starts to wilt and is tender, then add the coconut milk, lemon, and seasonings. Mix the ingredients well to ensure an even seasoning blend. Transfer to a warm serving dish and garnish with fresh coconut shavings. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Hawaiian Star Fruit in Mango-Orange Sauce
The star fruit is a tropical winter fruit that is gaining popularity in the United States. It has a complex flavor combination that includes plums, pineapples, and lemons. It is commonly grown here in Hawaii.

4 ripe star fruit
1 cup fresh orange juice
the fruit of 1 fresh ripe mango
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup coconut milk
maraschino cherries, halved

Cut star fruit into 1/4-inch thick star slices (count out 3 slices per person) set aside. Place the mango fruit in a food processor, or blender. Process or blend until it is smooth and pureed. Place mango puree in a pot with orange juice and sugar, and turn heat to high until juice begins to boil. Then turn down to low. Add sliced star fruit and allow to simmer for 10 or 12 minutes, or until fruit has softened. Remove pot from heat. Do a taste-test for sweetness, adding more sugar if needed (how sweet it is will depend on the ripeness of the fruit/juice you're using). If it happens to be too sweet for your taste, add a squeeze of fresh lime juice, or a little more orange juice. When you're happy with the taste, portion out 3 star fruit slices per bowl with enough sauce to surround the fruit (it should still be warm from the pot). Top each bowl with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds or cherry halves. Then drizzle over some coconut milk and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Mango Tango Ice Cream
Mango Tango Ice Cream
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This is my favorite tropical ice cream recipe to date. I have made this many times for dinner parties with no complaints.

1 1/2 cups pureed fresh mango
2 whole eggs
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 of a 15 fluid ounce can of coconut cream (shake can just before opening)
1, 14 fluid ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
fresh mango cut into small cubes for garnish (optional, but recommended)

In a food processor puree fresh mango. Add the rest of the ingredients except the garnish. Blend together and pour into your ice cream maker. Process until frozen to a soft consistency which should take about 1/2 hour. Freeze for several hours until solid. Serve with fresh mango cubes. Makes just over 2 pints, or 6 to 8 servings.

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