(or, Pumping Up Your Mussels)
You’ll never see a can of coconut milk for under a dollar. Not the good kind. -Sure, there’s the Roland Classic kind, which sometimes sells for 99 cents, but that brand has guar gum in it, which artificially thickens and emulsifies the coconut milk. A sign of good coconut milk, surprisingly, is that it doesn’t emulsify – when you open the can, you should see a nice, chunky cap of solid coconut fat. This is called the head. What’s great about this is you can use this head to start a curry – you gently fry the curry paste in the coconut fat and let the aromatics bloom. The rest of the can – the thinner, more watery milk – is used to make up the liquid body of whatever dish you’re making.
Anyway, a good can of coconut milk, like a 14-ounce can, will probably run you about $2.19, in 2011 dollars (assuming that, y’know, those of you reading in the future haven’t switched over to beaver pelts or the bimetallic standard, and you still know what a U.S. dollar is). I wondered about coconut milk – why was it more expensive than a can of chicken broth? Well, probably, first of all, economies of scale and the relative popularity of chicken broth (as well as a surplus of unused bones from all those boneless-skinless chicken bits) account for that. But perhaps, too, it was more effort to make a can’s worth of coconut milk than a can’s worth of chicken stock. I resolved to find out.
A single coconut at HarvesTime, my local grocery store, cost $1.29. Cackling, I drove a screwdriver into one of its three eyes – those sunken, dimply patches on the coconut, and drained the water.
Here’s an important distinction: many people think that if you poke a hole in a coconut, coconut milk comes out. This isn’t so; a coconut is full of water. What we call coconut milk is the meat of the coconut, which has been ground into a pulp with plenty of water and strained.
This is what comes out of a coconut:
It seems like there have been al sorts of coconut-based drinks cropping up these days – coconut water has lots of potassium and electrolytes, so it’s being touted as a sort of low-carbohydrate, all-natural Gatorade. People have been drinking coconut water in Southeast Asia since the earth was young, but I’ll say this: a mature coconut is probably not your ideal vector for coconut water. You want to get your coconut juice from a young, green coconut, because this stuff was – I’ll be the first to admit it – slightly vile.
It was bitter, salty, and kinda funky. Not one to waste anything in my kitchen, I quickly realized that the only way to make it potable was to make the coconut water into a cocktail.
The Man Friday
- The juice from one mature coconut
- 1 oz heavy cream
- 2 oz Malibu coconut rum
- Mix or shake ingredients together until well-blended.
- Serve over cracked ice.
Fortified with my cocktail, I picked up the coconut’s worst nightmare – a claw hammer. Having made sure that the coconut was mostly empty of juice (this is best done over the sink, or outside), I rapped the coconut sharply around its circumference with the claw portion of the hammer, until I had made enough cracks in the shell to peel it off, or twist the thing in half.
What remains is a ball of coconut meat, slathered all over its surface with what looks like Crisco – this is raw coconut fat.
With a knife or a pastry scraper, cut the coconut in half and start breaking it into pieces. You can see the big hollow where the coconut juice had been.
At this point, the coconut goes into a food processor; I used my girlfriend’s 3-cup mini-prep, since it lives at my apartment now. She used to work at Williams-Sonoma, and suffers from an unfortunate condition; she possesses altogether too much kitchen equipment for her apartment. I swear this isn’t why I’m dating her. (Hi, honey.)
Mix the coconut meat with water until it’s a completely smooth, blended mixture, about the consistency of thin pancake batter. This needs more water:
Eventually it’ll get to looking like this.
Now, this coconut milk still has all of those pesky coconut solids in it, and you’re going to want to isolate those for later. This means you’ll have to strain them, through a method that I have become more and more comfortable with – pouring the whole mess into a (clean!) kitchen towel and squeezing it dry.
It’s sort of unfortunate, y’know; I blame my old college roommate David for this – every time I pour some kind of chunky solution into a container, I will invariably think, or make aloud, some noise similar to “Bluaaaargh,” as though the first container is throwing up into the second one. Thanks, Dave.
Now you’re doing it too, aren’t you? I’m sorry. I’m a jerk.
Now, squeeze! Squeeze for great justice! What goes into the bowl beneath is marvelous, fresh, fatty, and fine: it’s coconut milk, and you did it! You did it, you son-of-a-gun in your gray flannel suit. You’ve created coconut milk, and it only cost you about half an hour of your time, as well as the use of a hammer, a clean towel that you’ll have to wash, and the use of a food processor. Time is your greatest currency in the kitchen, next to, y’know, actual currency.
So is this really worth it to do on a regular basis? I certainly don’t think so. Might be if I’d started with, like, ten coconuts – but really! What would I do with all of that at once? The argument for canned coconut milk gets pretty compelling; you start to see where that cost comes in. But every once in a while? Heck! Why not? It’s fun to do!
Reserve the coconut meat for later. It’s unsweetened, so it’s got this sort of nutty, raw flavor. It’s good, but best if you mix it with things. We’ll come back to that.
Let’s take an abrupt left turn to talk about mussels. Mussels are cheap, plentiful, sustainable, and delicious. I’m not exactly sure when I first started eating mussels, because I’m pretty sure I found them sort of terrifying for most of my childhood. At some point, I came to the realization that they were, in fact, fantastic – briny, rich, tender, and pretty easy to do well. I’ve been making them in my own kitchen for just under a few months, and I have yet to screw them up.
It just so happens that the Fish Guy Market on N. Elston has a special on mussels every week – I’m actually hesitant to tell you the day, because I’m worried you’ll snatch up all the mussels before I get there.
So I’ve started making mussels every week, because, for goodness’ sake, they’re 5 bucks a pound, and far cheaper than that on the coasts. Two pounds of mussels easily serves four people, given a loaf of good bread and a tasty vegetal side dish.
So I’m going to do just what Francis Lam says (click the word sustainable three paragraphs up) and explore pretty much every flavor combination I can possibly throw at the mussel.
This week, it’s red curry mussels!
Red Curry Mussels with Coconut Milk and Prosecco
Adapted from this Bobby Flay recipe
- 2 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned
- 2 teaspoons minced ginger
- 3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (I used Maesri brand)
- 1 1/2 cups painstakingly-prepared coconut milk, or one 14-oz can (like Chaokoh brand)
- 1/2 cup prosecco, or slightly less-fizzy white wine, like vinho verde.
- 1 to 1-and-1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- one big handful basil leaves (thai or italian will do)
- Heat your favorite dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add some vegetable oil of your choice or melt a bit of the coconut milk’s fatty head. Once it renders, add the ginger and curry paste and fry till fragrant, about a minute and a half.
- Add in the fish sauce – the original recipe calls for a full two tablespoons, and I feel that this makes the pursuant broth rather a bit too salty for my liking.
- Add the coconut milk, and smile as the fragrance of the tropics wafts through your kitchen.
- Add the wine. I used prosecco, because it’s what was available – it was pleasant and dry! I’m not sure if the bubbliness does anything, but prosecco has a nice dryness to it – a mild bitterness that does well here. Bring everything to a boil.
- Once the liquid is at a boil, add the mussels and heat till boiling again.
- Cover and cook for five to ten minutes, shaking the pan every once in a while. Lodge, send me some money.
- You’re looking for most of the mussels to open, but not all of them have to. If you like, separate out the cooked ones and leave the closed ones in the pot for more cooking. Don’t waste your time if they don’t open after that, though – chuck ‘em.Chiffonade the basil (cut it into ribbons) and toss it into the pot, and mix everything together.
- Ladle mussels into serving bowls, pour the lovely, fragrant broth over it, and serve with slices of crusty bread. Enjoy with the rest of the Prosecco.
There’s certain to be more mussel posts on here; I don’t know where they’ve been all my life, honestly.
Oh! And that leftover coconut meat from earlier? I used some of it in some tembleque. Tembleque is a Puerto Rican dessert I first learned about when I made it with my friend Rafa last Thanksgiving; it’s a delicate coconut pudding. You make it by cooking coconut milk with cornstarch until it sets up; I cheated and used the Goya box mix, because it was a last-minute impulse buy. It’s basically stovetop just-add-milk pudding mix; I added some coconut meat to give it some more body, portioned it into ramekins, and unmolded it like a flan. It’s called tembleque because it trembles so much when you jiggle the plate. It’s kind of fun just to poke it with a spoon. Makes y’feel like Dr. Cosby. Kinda.