Friday, April 22, 2005

The Coconut Connection

Hammer, chisel, butcher’s knife, nut pick, empty jelly jar … all the required instruments were lined up on the kitchen counter, at eye level, to the wide-eyed amazement of an eight-year-old. No, we weren’t setting up for a scary, medieval-torture rite. We had just come home from the grocery store with an exotic purchase – a coconut!

We were about to begin the dissection. All that was missing was a surgical mask! Of course, at the age of eight, I was well aware of the tasty delights of coconut. I had watched Mom cut open a plastic bag of starkly-white coconut shreds many times, sometimes reaching in for small handfuls myself and carefully spreading them on the top of a freshly-frosted, homemade cake that she had whipped up earlier in the day.

But a whole, round, brown, hairy coconut – looking as if it had come straight from the tropics, or at least from the set of "Gilligan’s Island" – held visions of exotic adventure. I could almost see the monkeys that had brushed the sides of this coconut with agile little hands, as they played in swaying coconut-palm trees. The coconut itself, in fact, looked like a monkey’s head to me. There they were, the eyes and the oval-shaped mouth – all that was needed was a bonnet or a cap to complete the picture! (The Portuguese had recognized the similarity long before me; "coco" is their word for monkey. The Italians took a somewhat-more-cynical view and used the word "cocho" which means bogeyman!)

First step in the “grand opening” of the coconut, the pointy end of the nut pick was tapped into one of the dark-colored eyespots, with the help of a few firm strokes of the hammer. Several more such strategic openings in both eyes of the coconut, to allow air to interchange, encouraged the sweet liquid inside to start flowing. Time for the jelly jar! The clear, thin liquid appeared in steady drips, collecting in the bottom. This was our treat, shared in little sips, before proceeding to the rest of the “operation.”

Usually, our heavy (and oldest) butcher’s knife – the one that was already past the normal use stage -- was sufficient to pierce the side of the coconut, again with the help of a hammer-tap or two. Sometimes, with particularly thickheaded coconuts, the 6-inch chisel (from the kitchen utensils drawer, not the garage workbench), had to assist. (I have since read that a hammer tap alone will open the shell but I still revert to former methods!)

Soon though, in either case and with several more hammer taps, the coconut was lying open, with its sweet, white interior beautifully displayed in two halves. Back to the trusty knife, to chip the coconut into smaller pieces and then to carefully peel it (all this, of course, being done by the competent knife handler, not the 8-year-old). Child-sized hands were at-the-ready, though, anxious to grasp glistening white discs of coconut and deliver them (after a quick rinse) straight to equally-white, childhood teeth. I could almost feel south seas trade winds wash over me as the soft, smooth flavor twirled in my mouth.

It took many years, and many mouthfuls of coconut, for me to learn that coconut milk was not the liquid that I remembered from the jelly jar (that is actually coconut juice, sometimes called coconut water). Rather, coconut milk is obtained by processing coconut meat to produce a rich, milk-like liquid. Of course, one can prepare fresh coconut milk oneself (see for instructions, for recipes using coconut and for lots of info concerning the nutritional properties of coconut).

I, on the other hand, am completely content to use the canned versions of coconut milk that I find in regular supermarkets’ foreign-foods sections, at international markets and online. Coconut milk is also available in powdered and freshly-refrigerated formats, though I don’t find these as frequently and usually opt for the soup-sized cans. My supply waits faithfully in my kitchen cabinet – no muss, no fuss, and no hammer required for its retrieval!

Coconut milk is widely used in both sweet and savory dishes, particularly in Asian, Indian and Caribbean cooking. It pairs well with chicken, fish and seafood. A friend developed the recipe that follows. Inspired by the tremendous variety of dishes prepared on the TV Food Network (and I hope a little by the musings of the Ingredient Sleuth), he approaches cooking with increasing creativity. Several months ago, he described a chicken dish that he had invented, detailing step by step how the dish had been developed as he selected on-hand ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry.

The combination of ingredients sounded wonderful to me as well – particularly given that the linking element, allowing all the components to blend compatibly, was coconut milk. I cooked up a batch of this chicken (then more batches, as the addictive flavor called to me over time) and savored the complexity and contrasts it provided. The smoothness of the coconut milk is an excellent offset to the tanginess of many of the other ingredients in the dish. In fact, it provides the perfect Coconut Connection, through which the other ingredients express themselves to the taste buds.

Here, courtesy of Doctor Doug (university scientific-researcher and patent attorney) is a dish that is easy to make and good-to-the-last-drop tasty! I don’t think Doug has patented (make that copyrighted) his recipe yet, but I asked for – and received – his permission to publish it here anyway!


1 pound of chicken breast, boneless, skinless, cut into four pieces

Marinate refrigerated, for 30 minutes, in:

Juice of 2 limes
1 cup chopped, fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup Sherry wine
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
2 shakes Tabasco sauce (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Remove chicken from marinade and brown in oil in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, about 3 minutes per side. Add remaining marinade mixture to pan.

Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes (turning chicken once while cooking), until there is no pink remaining in the chicken. Loosen good, brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Then add:

1 apple (Granny Smith or other baking apple), peeled, cored & cut into ¼ inch wedges
1 red bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch strips
¾ cup (about ½ can) coconut milk

Continue to cook, uncovered, until sauce is slightly thickened and chicken is fork-tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then add:

1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey, if desired, to preferred sweetness.
(4 servings)

Bon appetit!


Jennifer said...

My kids are going to get their first real coconut when we go to the supermarket this week. What a great idea you gave us. thx.

Anonymous said...

Delicious recipe & good to the last drop, as you said. It has a full and rich flavor with just enough bright bite.

ERic said...

When I was in Thailand last year I had a chicken dish that was so good I can't forget it. Nothing that I eat at Thai places here is the same. We cooked this chicken and it the closest I've found! My wife thinks it's probably the mustard that is the secret ingredient. We'll make it again.

Rochelle said...

I love your description of the coconut operation and it sounds like lots of fun. I think I have to try it!

linda said...

This recipe has so many of my favorite ingredients that it MUST be good. Time to restock my coconut milk and give it a try. (My kids love the idea of cocounut milk and it helps to get them to try dishes that they wouldn't otherwise.)

Doug said...

Coconut dissection was before my the age of 8 I was just learning where middle C was on the piano (courtesy of our very own Ingredient Sleuth!). Perhaps she would be willing to demonstrate in person sometime soon!

In fact, our family pretty much stuck to Midwest staple foods, mostly meat and potatos. It was only many years later (after I met my adventurous (food-wise) wife that I learned how many more delectable opportunities exist out there! Coconut milk was a recent and welcome addition to my repertoire, courtesy of my wife's fondness for curries.

I don't often set out to discover a new recipe. Usually I happen to be hungry and the thing I WAS going to make doesn't have all the ingredients present. When that happens I see what we have on hand and try to come up with something tasty. Although I SHOULD write down the successes, I rarely do. Many thanks to the Sleuth for preserving this one so that I can enjoy it for years to come!