Thursday, 8 September 2011

Coconut Lovin'

This feels like the first week of Fall, even though it doesn't officially start for a couple weeks.  The air has just been undeniably crisp and fresh, and I pulled out my fall coat this week.  I actually love this time of year, I must confess.  It's the time of year where I've accepted that Summer is over, and I look forward to all the beautiful things Fall has to offer.  There's a new fashion season, there's Fall food to cook, the trees look beautiful, the air smells so great, and one of the best things of harvest time and apple pies!  Pumpkin pies too!  This Fall, I want to go on an old fashioned hay ride in the country.  I wonder if I actually know anyone who would do something that hokey with me...?

Before it officially becomes Fall, today I'd like to write about one of my favourite things found in a warm, tropical climate: the coconut.  It's got to be the most incredibly versatile fruit on earth.  In the Philippines
, they call the palm tree the "Tree of Life."  To be honest, I don't even know if it's a fruit, nut, or seed....I can't really find a definitive answer.  Either way, it's much more than a one-trick pony.  Humans can use absolutely every part of the coconut palm.  Here's why I love it:


The coconut comes in three forms: From left to right, fresh coconut,
brown coconut, and fresh young coconut.

Coconut Meat

I haven't used fresh coconut meat in my cooking, only dried coconut which I use in baking all the time.  Coconut meat comes from fresh and brown coconuts, however, the flesh of the brown coconut is harder and has a more intense flavor than that of the fresh coconut which is too soft and light in flavour.  The meat of the fresh young coconut is softer and has much less flavour still.  In terms of cooking with fresh coconut meat, you can use it in thai curry dishes, rice, and baking.  Of course, coconut makes a delicious snack as well!  Dried coconut that is readily available at the grocery store comes from a mature brown coconut. 

Coconut Oil: 

This stuff is really amazing.  It is fantastic for cooking because it is heat stable, which makes it great for cooking at high temperatures, like frying.  It is also resistant to rancidity, even with long periods of storage.  In addition, it is super healthy for you.  It was once thought that coconut oil was bad for us because it is high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels and causes heart disease.  That bad press came from a study done on hydrogenated coconut oil.  We now know that the process of hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids, which are toxic entities that enter cell membranes, block utilization of essential fatty acids and impede cell functionality.  Trans fatty acids are not present in natural coconut oil.  Always make sure you buy organic virgin coconut oil.

Though coconut oil is primarily a saturated fat, it is definitely one of the good fats.  Recent discoveries prove that coconut oil has a 62% concentration of Medium Chain Fatty acids (MCFAs). This is coconut oils’ unique characteristic that is not present in other saturated fat. It may even be healthier than most saturated oils. Unsaturated fat have a high concentration of long chain fatty acids unlike MCFAs which are easily absorbed by the body as it require less energy and fewer enzymes, thereby improving digestion.

Short and medium chain fatty acids are transported directly to the liver where they are immediately converted to energy.  Research has also discovered that MCFA can prevent and heal a lot of sickness because of its antimicrobial properties. Aside from its ability to improve the immune system, MCFA also aids in the absorption and retention of magnesium, calcium and some amino acids.  Consuming MCFAs has shown no negative toxicological or pharmacological side effects. Virgin coconut oil and human breast milk are the richest source of medium chain fatty acids.

It also happens to make a really great beauty product that you can use on your hair and skin.  Jeremy and I have been using it as a facial and body moisturizer for 6 months now, and we swear by it.  First of all, it's completely natural with no chemicals.  Secondly, it smells great, and does a great job feeding your skin.  Thirdly, it seems to have anti-aging properties.  It seems to plump up those fine lines and wrinkles.  It makes an incredible lip gloss and moisturizer as well.  To use on your face, just keep a small container in your washroom, and use it like a regular moisturizer.  To use in your hair to heal damage, provide shine, prevent dandruff and hair loss, simply apply to hair and scalp, let it sit for an hour, then get in the shower and shampoo and condition as normal.  It's incredible stuff!

Coconut Water: 

Coconut water is the sweet, fragrant and delicious liquid contained in a fresh young coconut, which you can buy in Chinatown, or on the beach in any tropical country.

They are sold wrapped in plastic trimmed down as shown.  You just need to hack of the top with a knife (be careful!), put in a straw, add a tropical umbrella, and voila!  A delicious and refreshing drink.  You can also buy coconut water in cans at the store, but nothing is better than fresh.

Drinking coconut water has many health benefits.  It is naturally low in carbs, sugar, and it's 99% fat free.  It's an all natural sports drink, which replaces fluids and electrolytes that are lost during exercise or strenuous physical activity.  I've also read that it's great for:

  • heart health - the potassium lowers blood pressure
  • eliminating kidney stones - potassium plays a key role in alkalizing urine and prevents kidney stones from forming 
  • stress relief - it contains several minerals and small amounts of B-vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B-6 and folate.  Research shows that several B-vitamins play a crucial role in lowering anxiety, depression and stress
  • hangovers - since it is a fluid with the same five electrolytes found in human blood, it helps cure hangover by hydrating your body 
  • weight loss - it helps to detoxify the body, which can help with losing weight

It is probably the most healthy fluid we can drink other than water.

Coconut Flour: 

Coconut flour is simply dried, ground coconut meat.  It is available at health food stores, and Bob's Red Mill sells a nice one.  Make sure you look for unprocessed flour - it should be a cream colour, not white.  It's very high in fibre, making this flour a very healthy gluten free alternative, and lower carb option (because of the low glycemic index rating).  It adds just a slight coconut flavour to your baking.  If you're using liquid though, just be aware that because of the high fibre content, it absorbs liquid like crazy, so you might need to adjust the liquid by adding more.  Unless you know what you're doing, it's probably best to follow recipes designed for coconut flour, because the liquid and flour amounts, as well as cooking times, will be different when coconut flour is being used.

Coconut Sugar (aka Palm Sugar):

Palm sugar is a nutrient-rich, low-glycemic crystalline sweetener that looks, tastes, dissolves and melts almost exactly like sugar, but it's completely natural and unrefined. It's acquired from the flowers growing high on coconut trees, which are opened to collect their liquid flower nectar.  This nectar is then air-dried to form a crystalline sugar that's naturally brown in color and naturally rich in a number of key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6.  It is never refined or bleached like white sugar. So the nutrients it was made with are still there. That's rare for sweeteners, most of which are highly refined.

Most of the palm sugar commonly sold in Asian markets (in little pucks) is not pure coconut palm sugar but is blended with other fillers such as white cane sugar.  Head to your health food store to find organic palm sugar.  It's definitely much more expensive than any other kind of sugar.

Palm sugar is also supposed to be substantially better for the environment, having been called the
most sustainable sweetener by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Because it's low on the glycemic scale, at only 35 (table sugar is 68, honey is 55),the carbohydrates break down more slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream.  This will keep your blood sugar at a more steady level, without the spikes that come with other sugars.

I've been baking with palm sugar all summer, and it's fantastic!  It has a rich caramel flavour that adds some extra awesome to anything.  You can just substitute it  in 1:1 ratio in baking and cooking.  Actually, I've been using less and less sugar in my baking and don't even notice the difference.  So if you're going to try this stuff out, also challenge yourself to use a bit less than the recipe calls for.

Coconut Milk: 

This stuff is delicious!  You can buy it in a can, but please be aware that the cans are typically coated in BPA.  Native Forest is currently the only company that packages coconut milk in BPA free cans.  And it is organic, which is even better!  Just be aware that they use organic guar gum as a thickening agent. You can also buy coconut milk in a carton, just as you can with rice and almond milk (fine, soy milk too).  The brand is So Delicious, and so far, the only store I've seen it is The Big Carrot, but I'm sure it's probably available at Whole Foods, and other stores.  You can use either the canned or carton coconut milk in your cereal, coffee, and in cooking.  I love making thai curry dishes with coconut milk.  YUM!  



Chocolate Macaroons

2 cups sugar
6 tbsp cocoa
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup shredded coconut
3 cups rolled oats

Combine sugar, coca, butter and milk in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and add vanilla.  Remove from heat, stir in coconut and rolled oats.  Drop by spoonfuls onto wax paper, and chill.

These macaroon are so simple and yummy.  I'm sure there are ways to make them less sugary and buttery, but I haven't experimented yet.  I will definitely try making them with palm sugar instead, and probably less of it too.  I'm not sure whether coconut oil  or applesauce could be substituted for the butter.  But I will let you know if I have any news.  In the meantime, enjoy these ones as they are.

Curry Sauce with Coconut Milk

3 tbsp. organic virgin coconut oil
1 medium onion chopped
4 cloves garlic chopped
2 whole tomatoes chopped
1 tbsp. red curry paste
1/2 to 1 cup water or broth
Choice of fresh vegetables and meat
1 (13.5-oz.) can coconut milk

Heat the coconut oil in a skillet.  Saute the onions until they are just beginning to brown.  You don't want to caramelize or burn them.  Add the garlic to the onions and cook for another minute or so.  If the pan starts to get too hot, add a little broth or water instead of more oil.  This will keep your sauce from burning without adding more fat to it.

Add in the tomatoes, followed by the curry paste, and cook this down for about 5 minutes.  Blend the paste well into the sauce, whisking in a few drops of water as needed.

Pour in one can of coconut milk and let it heat up with the rest of the sauce.  Scrape the can down, as the fats tend to collect on the sides and bottom.  This is where a good deal of the flavour comes from, so you don't want to miss any of that.

Mix in the meat and/or vegetables and heat until all of the ingredients are cooked thoroughly.  You may want to add your meat in first, as that will generally take longer to cook than most vegetables.  Serve over rice!

I find I need more than 1 tbsp of curry paste, as I like the heat!

Gluten-Free Coconut Layer Cake

I have not made this recipe yet, but certainly plan to in the coming months.  The recipe is from one of my favourite blogs, the Gluten-Free Goddess.  Instead of setting out the recipe for you here, I'm simply going to send you to her blog to check it out if you're interested.  Her writing and photography is fabulous!  The recipe can be found here.

I hope you've learned lots about the amazing coconut and start including it in your diet wherever you can, in its many forms.  Maybe it can help you keep a little feeling of summer alive as we head far away from it again :)

~ C.

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