Along with the date, the coconut is an indespensible member of the Palmaceae family, plants of utmost importance to hundreds of millions of people throughout the tropical areas of the world. The coconut palm has provided food, drink, oil, sugar, fuel, housing, and even clothing materials for thousands of years. It probably originated in Southeast Asia, but because coconuts (which are actually huge seeds) can stay afloat for weeks at sea, the plant spread to the islands of the Indian Ocean, throughout the Pacific, and finally to the West Coast of the Americas. Coconuts were introduced to the Carribean and to the tropical areas of the Atlantic coast in the sixteenth century.
Coconuts are very large fruits encased in elongated green husks. Inside is the fibrous brown nut familiar to most Americans. A coconut takes about a year to mature, but it can be enjoyed at several stages of development. In the tropics, coconuts are consumed at early stages. At six months they contain they contain a milky liquid and a thin interior coating of meat that is extremely nutritious and so tender it can be eaten with a spoon. As the coconut matures, the milk is gradually absorbed by the meat.
The mature coconut is what is exported. The green husk is usually removed to expose the hard, dark brown, fibrous shell. Inside, the nutty-tasting white flesh is covered by a paper-thin brown peel.
Available year round but most plentiful from October to January.
When buying a coconut, look for a heavy one. Shake it and listen for a sloshing around - the coconut should still contain some milk. There are three "eyes", or indentations, fairly close together on the shell; this is where it's softest and thinnest. There should be no sign of moisture near the eyes nor any smell of fermentation - check the coconut eyes with your nose.
Coconuts keep at room temperature for three or four weeks or more. They'll last for weeks in the refrigerator, but the milk will eventually dry up. Once opened, a coconut must be wrapped and refrigerated, and it will only keep two or three days. To store longer, you can grate it, then either freeze it or dehydrate it and store tightly covered.
Here is an easy way to open a coconut: drive a screwdriver or nail into the eyes and drain the liquid, which can be chilled and added to fruit juice, then place the whole coconut in the oven at 250° to 325° and roast about fifteen minutes. This will make the shell easier to crack and cause the flesh to shrink away from the shell slightly. Remove from the oven and tap the shell with a hammer; it will break easily and the flesh should be easy to remove. If the flesh clings to the shell, return the pieces to the oven for five to ten more minutes.
You can eat the flesh with the thin brown skin on - I think it's good that way - or you can peel it. Grated coconut can be sprinkled over fruit salad or ice cream, added to granola, or made into macaroons, coconut cake, or cream pie. Use it in curries or tropical drinks. I love to add it to my cereal in the morning.
Coconut milk is used in a number of cuisines, including Thai and Indian. You can make coconut milk by grating the flesh by hand or using a food processor. Combine the grated meat with three or four cups of water, bring to a boil, and let it simmer a few minutes, stirring constantly. Allow to cool and strain it through a cheesecloth, squeezing the cloth to wring out all the milk. Discard the solids and store the milkin the refrigerator or freezer. Coconut milk makes a terrific rice pudding, and it can be added to the filing for coconut pie. It's a key ingredient in the tropical drinks like hte cocoloco (coconut mik and rum) and piña colada (pineapple juice, coconut milk, and rum).
Preheat the oven to 250°F. Open the coconut according to the instructions above. Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, shave off thin strips or curls of coconut meat. Spread these on a baking sheet and bake for 1 to 2 hours, or until golden brown, turning once ot twice during baking. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the crisps with salt if desired. Cool and serve as a snack. The crisps keep for weeks well stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
A Taste of the Tropics
When it's cold and wintry, people enjoy eating tropical fruits and giving them as gifts. I especially like to eat a mango in the winter. Does it make me feel warmer? I don't know, but I do think tropical fruits are nice to give around the holidays - foods people might not think to buy but would enjoy if given. You can make an attractive gift by lining and inexpensive basket with a Christmas napkin and loading it with mangoes, pineapple, coconuts, kiwis, kumquats - whatever looks pretty and appealing. Almost everyone appreciates good things to eat as gifts, so when the alternative is yet another scarf or necktie, a basket of tropical fruits can be a winning choice.
Coconut Cookie Bars
Other recipes from Produce Pete.