Take Two: Coconut Milk Page 1 | 2
When she had a bowl full of finely shredded coconut, she took it into her kitchen and added a little hot water. I trailed along with my dictionary to see what she did next. She began to knead and stir with her hands until the water turned milky white. She then placed a thin dishtowel over another bowl, dumped the coconut into it and began to squeeze out the liquid. She repeated this several times until the water no longer took on a milky hue. To my surprise, she then discarded the grated coconut!
Dividing the resulting "leche de coco", she sweetened part of it and poured it into ice trays (without the dividers). The rest of it went into the refrigerator. I tried to ask what she was making, but we couldn't communicate.
A couple of hours later she knocked at my door, and with a burst of Spanish, incomprehensible at that time, indicated that I should go with her. (Probably she was saying, "Okay, crazy American, come see what I'm going to do now!" I was probably a pest, and often, I am sure, provided endless amusement for my Hispanic neighbors, but I learned the Spanish language and Hispanic cooking!)
The sweetened coconut milk in the ice trays came out, and she began to scrape mightily with a sturdy spoon. As soon as she scraped about a cup of crystals, they were returned, loosely, into the freezer compartment in another ice tray. When done with the whole tray, she gave me a small dish. Voila! Creamy coconut sherbet!
Then to my amazement, she added some of the unsweetened "leche de coco" to the water in which she was cooking her rice. While the rice was cooking, she salted, floured and quickly browned some small fishes in a bit of the lard. She drained the lard into the grease pot, a usual fixture on the back of stoves in Miami, for later use. She then poured some of the "leche de coco" into the frying pan and poached the fried fish until cooked through and the liquid in the pan started to thicken into a thin gravy. When done, she dished me up a little. It was a unique taste.
Since then I have eaten a number of dishes made with "leche de coco", and although I don't often use it in cooking personally, it's a welcome taste treat once in a while.
As Miami grew, more working women needed to take shortcuts when cooking, and lethal yellowing took its toll on the supply, canned coconut milk imported from the tropics became just another grocery staple, as it is in Asian markets. Canned coconut cream is also available, which is a more concentrated, extracted without added water. But for creamy taste and "mouth feel", the real, fresh stuff can't be beat.
Coconuts and coconut cream or milk contain small amounts of a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and are especially high in potassium and folate, vital nutrients.
Coconut doesn't contain any cholesterol; only animals with livers produce cholesterol. You are an "animal" with a liver, however, and eating foods high in saturated fat is thought to cause your body to increase its cholesterol production. Some ready-made foods contain coconut oil, and both this addition and eating of the coconut meat itself has been roundly criticized by many health-conscious organizations and individuals. This conclusion isn't proven however. Some researchers suspect the health benefits of coconut may outweigh its high calorie and saturated fat drawbacks. See this article by Mary G. Enig, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., entitled Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century, wherein she states that coconuts contain anti-microbial and anti-cancer compounds. In fact, in tropical countries, extracts of the coconut in all of its stages are used in remedies and medications, as well as in soaps and other products. See another report from an interview with this same researcher, "Coconut Oil Benefits":
(Enig states:) “Total tissue cholesterol accumulation for animals on the safflower diet was six times greater than for animals fed the [unhydrogenated] coconut oil. A conclusion that can be drawn from some of the animal research is that feeding hydrogenated coconut oil devoid of essential fatty acids (EFA)...potentiates the formation of atherosclerosis markers. It is of note that animals fed regular coconut oil have less cholesterol deposited in their livers and other parts of their bodies.” Enig also referred to epidemiological studies done by Kaunitz and Dayrit (1992) on coconut eating societies who found that “available population studies show that dietary coconut oil does not lead to high serum cholesterol nor to high coronary heart disease..” It is noteworthy that hydrogenated coconut oil was not consumed by these coconut eating societies; they only consumed natural coconut oil."
Before you add coconut products to your diet, read that last sentence again. Most added coconut oil found in supermarket foods has been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, turning it into a coronary hazard. Read your labels!
On occasions when I had someone here cooking a dish for me that called for coconut milk, I made some coconut milk in a hurry by getting someone to open a mature coconut, prizing out the meat, scraping off some of the worst of the brown skin and throwing the whole thing into my food processor with some very hot water. The resulting milk I strained out was a slightly darker color due to not removing all the brown part, but was otherwise quite acceptable.
Here's some links to recipes using coconut milk for you to try: