Coconut Milk - The Tropics In A Can

 As exotic as they seem to us, coconuts have been a food staple in the tropics for thousands of years. Credit for bringing coconuts to the West is generally given to Marco Polo (with an assist by Curious George).

It didn't take us long to discover what our tropical brethren have known since time immemorial: The biggest drawback to coconuts is the packaging. Opening one requires both skill and tools. That's where coconut milk comes in. Not only is it easier to get at (it's sold in cans in most supermarkets), it's easier to incorporate into your everyday cooking. It can substitute for almost any kind of liquid, and adds a distinctive flavor and a creamy richness. And, it must be said, an alarming amount of saturated fat; don't be too free with it if you value your arteries.

If you're going to cook with coconut milk, you should be clear on what it is. It is not the milky liquid in the center of the coconut - that's coconut water. Coconut milk is the liquid squeezed from the flesh, and it has the color and consistency of half-and-half. Now that you know what it is, you won't have any trouble finding a use for it.

Regular and light coconut milk work the same way in most recipes. Because the light version is still quite high in fat, you won't notice much difference in the final product.

  • Braise or poach snapper or sea bass in fish stock with coconut milk, garlic, and ginger.
  • Add coconut milk to carrot or pumpkin soup.
  • Coconut milk is a classic curry ingredient; try it with fish or chicken.
  • Serve scallops or shrimp over a bed of spinach sautéed with onions, garlic, and coconut milk.
  • Marinate chicken or lamb in coconut milk with cilantro and ginger, and then broil or grill.
  • Substitute coconut milk for about a third of the water for cooking rice; season with fresh mint and black pepper. (Rice cooked in coconut milk is also great for making rice pudding.)
  • Mix coconut milk and vanilla yogurt as a dressing for fruit salad; top with shredded coconut.
  • Add some to a fruit smoothie, particularly mango or banana.

Go nuts!

Coconut Flan

2 cups sugar
1 cans  (14 oz.)  sweetened condensed milk
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk, unsweetened
1 can (14 oz.) evaporated milk
6 large eggs
2 Tbsp coconut extract
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup shredded coconut, sweetened

Preheat the oven to 325°F

1. Heat 2 cups of sugar in a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, stirring frequently until caramelized. Pour caramel into 12 individual ramekins or two 9-inch round baking dishes, swirling them until the bottom and sides are evenly coated. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine milks, eggs, coconut extract, vanilla and salt, mix well. Pour over the caramel mixture. Place the ramekins or baking dishes in a large roasting pan in the oven and add hot water until half way up the sides of the dishes. Cover with foil and bake until set, about 2.5 - 3 hours. Chill overnight.

3. Turn the flan out onto a serving plate, sprinkle with shredded coconut and serve.

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