This year, coconut starred at the Natural Products Expo, which took place in March in Anaheim, California. I found this interesting, as the Expo generally promotes healthy foods.
Coconut appeared in energy bars, in sports drinks and in a coconut milk beverage designed as a substitute for milk, for use in cereal or coffee. There was even coconut yogurt, made from cultured coconut milk and available in such flavors as strawberry and chocolate.
Especially prominent was the coconut ice cream, made by a company called So Delicious (formerly Soy Delicious) that had previously concentrated on soy ice cream. I assumed it was designed to appeal to coconut lovers. But when I tasted the chocolate peanut butter swirl and the mocha almond fudge, I found they didn't have much coconut flavor. When I asked the presenter at the booth, I was told that the ice creams use a coconut base, but most were not intended to taste like coconut. It turned out the coconut is used for nondairy desserts for people who may be allergic to soy.
The company mentions coconut's health benefits, presenting it as rich in medium chain fatty acids, citing publications that claim they protect the immune system, and as an excellent vegetarian source of vitamin B12. Still, by calling this line of ice creams Purely Decadent, it appeared they were earnestly promoting pleasure.
In Western countries, we tend to associate coconut with desserts, but the fruit has at least as many savory uses. Coconut has long been a favorite in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and some Latin American countries for stews and soups made with chicken, meat, fish and vegetables.
Coconut milk creates a luscious, creamy sauce that is terrific for parve preparations.
Spicy sauces mellowed by coconut milk make any food sing.
I have enjoyed such sauces in Thai, Sri Lankan and Indonesian curries. Most of the time they were fiery. So I was particularly surprised when I recently came across a Burmese breakfast curry soup at Yoma Restaurant in Monterey Park, California. Although I have learned to enjoy spicy food over the years, I couldn't imagine eating curry for breakfast.
Known as coconut chicken noodle soup, the curry had a warm, orange color. With a generous amount of tender, spaghetti-like noodles, chicken strips, a few chickpeas, a hard-boiled egg and a sprinkling of sliced onions, it was hearty and satisfying.
"In Burma's major cities, shops selling this soup are as abundant as cafes are in France," wrote Aung Aung Taik in The Best of Burmese Cooking, and noted that Burmese cuisine is related to that of China, India and Thailand.
According to Susan Chan, author of Flavors of Burma Myanmar, the soup is served on special occasions like weddings and birthdays. Traditionally, it was made with freshly grated coconut for extra creaminess, but prepared coconut milk is often used to save time.
The following curry is also good for lunch or dinner. But if you're a coconut lover and you'd like breakfast with a difference, remember there are other possibilities beyond coconut granola.
COCONUT CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
This rich Burmese chicken noodle soup is served with Chinese wheat noodles or rice noodles. Usually it's thickened with chickpea powder; I am substituting pureed canned chickpeas, which are more readily available. You can garnish the soup with whole chickpeas if you like. I have replaced the customary fish sauce with soy sauce.
This is a simplified version of the soup, based on the recipes of Charmaine and Reuben Solomon, authors of The Complete Curry Cookbook, and of Susan Chan, author of Flavors of Burma Myanmar. Aung Aung Taik also adds ground roasted peanuts to his version. Serve the soup with lemon wedges and hot pepper sauce.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 A 1.4-kg. chicken, cut in pieces
4 3 large onions
4 1 tsp. chopped gingerroot
4 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
4 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 1â„2 tsp. ground turmeric
4 1â„2 tsp. paprika
4 1 or 2 cans (400 gr. each) coconut milk
4 1â„2 cup canned chickpeas, drained, or more if needed
4 Salt to taste
4 Cayenne pepper or other hot red pepper to taste
4 450 gr. spaghetti
4 4 eggs, hard-boiled, halved or quartered
Put chicken in a large saucepan with water to nearly cover. Halve 1 onion and add to the pot. Bring to a boil. Skim off foam that rises to top. Add gingerroot and soy sauce.
Cover and simmer about 1 hour or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken. Remove meat from bones and cut in small pieces.
Slice remaining onions thin; reserve one third of slices to use as garnish. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion slices and saute, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add garlic, turmeric and paprika and saute, stirring often, until onions begin to turn brown. Add chicken, mix well and reserve.
Heat broth to a simmer and stir in coconut milk. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often.
Add onion-chicken mixture and heat through. Puree chickpeas in a food processor and stir into soup. Bring to a simmer. For a thicker soup, puree another 1â„4 cup canned chickpeas, stir into soup and heat through. Season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper.
Meanwhile, cook spaghetti uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat for 9 minutes or until tender. Drain well.
To serve, divide spaghetti among large bowls. Ladle in enough hot soup to cover spaghetti and garnish with hard-boiled eggs and sliced onions.
COCONUT ICE CREAM
For dairy ice cream, use milk to infuse the coconut, as I learned to do in Paris; or use water to make parve ice cream. Because the coconut is finely ground, you don't need to strain the liquid.
Serve the ice cream with sliced mangoes or strawberry sauce, or drizzle it with chocolate sauce and sprinkle it with toasted coconut.
Makes 6 or 7 servings
4 2 cups milk
4 3â„4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. finely ground dried coconut (75 gr.)
4 4 egg yolks
4 2â„3 cup sugar
Bring the milk and the coconut to a boil in a heavy saucepan.
Whisk yolks in a large bowl. Add sugar; whisk until blended. Gradually whisk in hot coconut mixture. Return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring mixture and scraping bottom of pan constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture reaches 75ÂºC on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes. To check without a thermometer, see Note below. Immediately pour custard into a bowl; stir about 30 seconds to cool. Cool to lukewarm.
Pour custard into ice cream machine. Churn-freeze ice cream in machine until firm.
Serve soft ice cream immediately.
Or, transfer ice cream to a chilled bowl and cover. Place ice cream in freezer for 2 to 4 hours or until firm. Serve ice cream slightly softened.
Note: To check custard without a thermometer, remove pan from heat. Dip a metal spoon in custard and draw your finger across back of spoon. Your finger should leave a clear path in mixture that clings to spoon. If it does not, continue cooking another 30 seconds and check again. Do not overcook custard or it will curdle.n
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook.