My first encounter with real coconut milk involved neither can nor can opener.
Though my husband Ted, Cousin Martin and I have traveled to many places where coconut milk features in the local food, it wasn't until we stayed at Kathleen's house, in the Afro-Caribbean community of Arima, Trinidad, that I learned how to make, and cook with, coconut milk. Kathleen made everything from scratch in her tiny kitchen, including smashing coconuts with a hammer on the ground outside the front door, and pressing the meat to extract the milk.
Hairy brown coconuts don't grow on trees here in Rhode Island, but many markets do sell them. Still, making coconut milk is a bit labor-intensive, so I keep a few cans in the pantry.
Don't tell Kathleen.
I've featured coconut milk five times in The Perfect Pantry, with more than a dozen recipes from Brazil, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Puerto Rico and California.
Start with the story of ICE COLD NUTS, and an explanation of the difference between coconut water (the liquid inside the coconut), coconut milk (made by pressing the coconut solids), and coconut cream (another name for coconut milk, or for the coconut milk solids that coagulate in the can, or for coconut meat steeped in milk). Good grief. Even the explanation is confusing!
Then, because a remix is all about music, take a musical interlude with Kermit the Frog. (Please. Go. Sing. Shake your head and do a giggly dance.) Kermit knows what he's talking about. I'm amazed at how often lime and coconut pair up in my curry recipes. Instead of curdling the milk, the acid cuts the richness to achieve perfect balance.
My friend Peter, chef-owner of a pousada in Brazil, taught us how to turn coconut milk into ice cream with the help of some supersized avocados. I shared a recipe for chicken satay that brought back memories of smoky roadside restaurants in Malaysia.
I love to combine coconut milk with Thai red or green curry paste, and a bit of lime and brown sugar, for a quick sauce for fish, meat, or tofu curries:
- Red curry tofu with spinach and mushrooms (in the top photo)
- Salmon choo chee
- Green shrimp or fish curry
- Red curry beef with mushrooms, red bell pepper and cilantro
- Green chicken curry with eggplant
- Red curry mussel stew
- Spicy Thai chicken curry
- Pineapple shrimp curry
More versatile than you'd imagine, coconut milk brings non-dairy creaminess to soups, stews, marinades, and rice:
- Moqueca (Brazilian fish stew)
- Thai tofu and winter squash stew
- Golden festival rice
- Chicken curry, Lombok style
- Mulligatawny soup
- Egg curry
- Grilled sirloin tips with asparagus
Coconut milk even makes desserts:
You'll find coconut milk in 13- or 14-ounce cans in the Latino, Caribbean or Asian aisles of most supermarkets as well as ethnic markets; Asian grocery stores often stock 5.5-ounce cans, which are great for smaller dishes. Store unopened cans in the cupboard indefinitely; leftover coconut milk should go into an airtight container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to two days. If it separates, give it a vigorous stir and it will be fine.
Use the search box on the right (up near the top of this page) to find more recipes and fun facts about coconut milk in The Perfect Pantry.
What do you make with coconut milk?
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