A few years ago, Ted and I visited Trinidad, where we stayed with a family in the town of Arima, a lively Afro-Caribbean community in the center of the country.
Each day we'd set off on explorations, to the Asa Wright Bird Sanctuary, a steel pan competition, the tar pits in the south, or the capital city, Port-of-Spain. And everywhere we went, we passed open-back trucks parked along the side of the road, with hand-lettered signs:
ICE COLD NUTS
The nuts were ripe green giant coconuts, and when you purchased one, the seller would hack off the top with a machete. He'd stick a straw in it and hand it to you, like an oversized tropical drink at a tiki bar, and you could sip the very cold liquid inside — entirely refreshing in the hot Caribbean climate.
I was expecting coconut milk, the stuff that comes in a can. Instead, out came coconut water, also referred to as coconut juice or milk, though it's not milk at all.
Coconut milk — also called coconut cream (are you confused yet?) — is made by passing coconut meat through a grater and then squeezing it to extract the milky fluid, which is thinned with water. The resulting milk is smooth and thick, with a slightly sweet flavor. In the can (which is how we usually buy it), the thick "cream" floats to the top, and can be scooped off for recipes that call for coconut cream. The thinner milk remains at the bottom. Shaking the can redistributes the creamy bits.
Those who are limiting their intake of cholesterol should go easy on coconut milk; while it contains no cholesterol, it boasts 552 calories per cup, of which a whopping 88% is fat. And that's what makes it taste so good.
Thai tofu and winter squash stew
Great for potluck, when you want to bring something meatless. Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Serves 6.
3 large leeks, white parts only
4 Tbsp peanut oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 serrano chiles, minced (remove seeds and ribs for mild heat; leave in for hot!)
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger root
2 Tbsp curry powder, sweet or hot, to taste
2 tsp light brown sugar
6 Tbsp mushroom soy sauce (or regular soy)
2 14-oz cans unsweetened coconut milk
3 lbs butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 10-oz packages extra-firm tofu, drained, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Juice of 2 limes
2/3 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Halve the leeks lengthwise, then cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Wash well in a bowl of water, then drain.
Heat the oil in a wide soup pot. Add the leeks and cook over fairly high heat, stirring frequently, until partially softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, most of the chiles, and ginger; cook 1 minute more, then add the curry, sugar and soy sauce. Reduce the heat to medium, scrape the pan, and cook for a few minutes more. Add 3 cups water, the coconut milk, squash, and 1 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Add the tofu to the stew once the squash is almost tender, then simmer until it’s done. Taste for salt and add the lime juice.
Serve the stew over rice with the cilantro, peanuts and remaining chile scattered over the top.
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