“Learning to crack open a coconut is essential to becoming a Thai cook.” Su-Mei Yu
One good thing about winter is that people go to Florida, and they bring back coconuts. That’s how I happen to have a real live coconut–hairy husk and all–sitting on my kitchen counter. It’s an awesome package–a thick, fibrous outer covering and tough, hard inner shell protecting the sweet aromatic coconut meat. How do you turn this hairy ball into coconut milk?
Su-Mei yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut has the answer. I love reading this book about ancient Thai cooking traditions and the intricacies of Thai curry. Su-Mei writes that coconut is to the Thais what butter, cream, and oil are to Western cuisine, but more than that the coconut is the “spirit of Thai cooking.” The coconut tree spiritually and literally “anchors, protects, and secures the land” and is second only to rice as Thailand’s most important crop. The rich coconut cream extracted from the grated flesh is essential to the Thai way of stir-frying, and just one coconut can provide enough milk and cream for a sumptuous pot of curry.
Even though I often make Thai curry, I have always relied on canned coconut milk and cream. But Su-Mei says there is no comparison between the taste and aroma of fresh coconut cream and the canned product. I believe her, so I gather up the tools she says are necessary to the endeavor: heavy hammer, Phillips head screwdriver, regular screw driver, dish towel, potato ricer, 3 or 4 bowls, vegetable peeler, and a metal spoon. It sounds like preparation for major surgery, but Su-Mei considers it “coconut therapy.”
Once the outer packing is removed, you will see three indentations, or “eyes” on the top of the coconut. To extract the juice, position a Phillips head screwdriver in one of the eyes and tap it with the hammer to punch a hole. Repeat on a second eye. Drain the juice into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for drinking or other use.
Place the coconut on the center rack of a preheated 375 degrees F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Put the coconut on a hard surface (preferably concrete) and strike it with the hammer to crack it open. Break into four or five pieces. Hold a piece of coconut with a dishtowel to protect you hands and pry the meat loose with a flat-blade screwdriver. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the dark outer skin off the white meat (I saved these peelings and toasted them on the wood stove…they were delicious).
Now cut the coconut meat into 1-inch pieces and use a food processor with a metal blade to chop the chunks into very small pieces. Pulse and blend until the coconut turns to pulp. Add 1 cup warm water and process for 30 seconds. Transfer the pulp to a large mixing bowl and “milk” the coconut by squeezing and rubbing with your fingers. Massage and squeeze 89 times–this is the ritual number required to produce rich and creamy milk.
Put the pulp into a potato ricer or fine strainer over another bowl. Press to extract the liquid. Refrigerate the liquid at least one hour to allow the cream to rise to the top. Skim off the cream and refrigerate the cream and milk in separate containers. Meanwhile, put the coconut pulp back into a mixing bowl and add 3 cups warm water. Repeat the massaging and squeezing process 89 times. Strain, as before, and refrigerate the liquid at least one hour. Skim off the cream and add it to the first batch of cream. Refrigerate the thin milk separately.
Su-Mei Yu recommends cracking and extracting the meat from more than one coconut at a time. The extra coconut can be frozen up to a month for making more coconut milk or toasted coconut flakes. Once you make a batch of fresh coconut milk, you will be hooked and never want to go back to the canned stuff again.
Freshly grated coconut flakes: the pulp left over from making coconut milk may be saved for baking or dry-roasted to use for a topping on salads or stir-fry. Flakes made from coconut before the milk is extracted have a richer flavor. Roast about 1 cup freshly grated coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat, shaking and stirring until evenly browned. Cool completely before storing in a tightly sealed glass jar.
Coconut Snacks: Miang Kati and Miang Kum
This snack from northeastern Thailand–a fresh chutney wrapped in leaves– is the perfect way to sample freshly made coconut flakes and cream. Traditionally, native bitter greens are used, but tender sorrel, spinach, radicchio, or even bib lettuce leaves all make good wrappers. The bundles make great appetizers or snack with afternoon tea.
This version is adapted from Su-Mei Yu’s recipe (I used much less sugar). Miang means “leaf bundle” and Kati refers to the coconut cream drizzled on top.
Ingredients: 20 to 24 well-washed and dried spinach, radicchio, or lettuce leaves, sunflower or peanut oil, 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar, fine sea salt, 3.4 cup dry-roasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 1/3 cup fresh coconut cream, lime wedges, minced fresh chiles
Warm 2 Tbs oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Separate the shallots into rings and add them to the oil with a pinch of seas salt. Fry slowly, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Transfer to a plate to cool. Add 1 or 2 tsp oil to the pan, if needed. Add the peanuts to the pan with 2 Tbs sugar and 1/4 tsp sea salt. Stir to coat the peanuts, 1 minute. Add the fried shallots and toasted coconut flakes and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Serving: Set out a platter of leaves of your choice next to the bowl of miang kati. Set small bowls of coconut cream, minced chile, and lime wedges nearby. To eat, place a spoonful of filling in the middle of a leaf, drizzle with coconut cream, add a pinch of chile and a squeeze of lime juice, wrap it up and pop in your mouth.
This second recipe is adapted from a coconut-lime chutney found in Mollie Katzen’s Still Life with Menu Cookbook. Again, I decreased the sugar–feel free to re-instate it if your taste runs sweet.
Ingredients: 8 oz spinach or radicchio leaves, 1 small lime, 1/3 cup chopped sweet onion, 1/3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts, 1/3 cup toasted freshly grated coconut flakes, 2 Tbs palm or brown sugar (Mexican piloncillo cane sugar is very tasty), 1/4 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp red chile sauce, 2 tsp minced ginger, 1/4 tsp shrimp paste (optional)
Wash and cut the lime into small dice (remove seeds). Put the lime and all the other ingredients into a food processor and pulse to make a coarsely chopped mixture. Adjust the seasoning to suit your taste.
Serving: In addition to the chutney, Mollie sets out small bowl of finely chopped onion, lime, and ginger, as well as more roasted peanuts and coconut flakes. A pinch of each is placed on a leaf with the chutney before rolling it up to pop in your mouth. As usual, I would add a bowl of minced chiles to the assortment.