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Many people around the world associate palm trees with picturesque lands and relaxing tropical vacations. Millions of others treasure their fruit. Certain palm trees give us sweet dates. Others produce delicious, caramel-like palm sugar. Still others yield coconuts, which are enjoyed in countless culinary preparations. Indeed, these coconut palms are so important in some areas of the globe that, according to the Philippine Coconut Authority, they are known there as the "tree of life." Coconut cakes and desserts are familiar in American and European cuisines but in the rest of the world the coconut stars in savory dishes as well. Lately I have been indulging in coconut sauces.
Such sauces are made from coconut milk and sometimes coconut cream, both of which are made by infusing grated coconut in water. (The liquid inside the coconut, which is good as a drink, is known as coconut water.) When I learned in Paris in the 1970s how to make Thai curries and desserts from a Thai chef friend, I considered coconut milk chiefly as a component of Thai cooking. Later I learned that coconut milk is equally important in the other countries of Indochina - Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. It is also very popular in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and southern India. Cantonese cooks have adopted certain Indochinese flavors and have developed their own version of coconut chicken curry, which appears prominently on the menu of a Chinese restaurant around the corner from my home.
The world of savory coconut milk dishes is not confined to Asian cooking. A few months ago I sampled a delicious coconut-flavored seafood soup at El Katracho, a casual Honduran caf in Los Angeles. The soup came in several versions, depending on the kind of seafood you wanted. It was served with white rice, for spooning into each bowl. The fresh-tasting fish broth was well seasoned but not spicy. With the creamy richness of coconut and the accompanying white rice, it was the kind of soup you wanted to savor slowly, so the experience would last for a while. In short, this soup was true comfort food.
Eating the soup reminded me of some tasty, coconut-enriched Brazilian stews I had sampled several years ago. Some were made with fish and some with chicken. They had a smooth, luscious texture reminiscent of classic French cream sauces, with the bonus of a distinct coconut flavor.
In my experience, these Latin American coconut soups and stews were different from their Asian counterparts in another significant way. They were not spicy. Although coconut milk is often associated with fiery curries because it mellows their pungency, it marries equally well with delicate seasonings. The Honduran stew, for example, was seasoned simply with sauteed onion, a little garlic and a subtle hint of cilantro, as well as salt and pepper. Some Caribbean coconut stews gain a sweet and spicy character from allspice, cinnamon and fresh ginger cooked in coconut milk.
According to Patricia McCausland-Gallo, author of Secrets of Colombian Cooking, cooks in Colombia also prepare stews of chicken and fish in coconut sauces. For her chicken breast stew with coconut sauce, she adds onions, sweet red pepper, garlic and turmeric or achiote (a spice that colors the sauce reddish-yellow). Her fish and coconut milk stew, like the Honduran stew I tasted, is flavored with onions, garlic and cilantro and is served with rice; however, it is more substantial, as she also adds tomatoes, yams, plantains (cooking bananas) and yuca (a potato-like root).
Brazilian coconut stews of fish or chicken can go either way. Sometimes they feature curry-type spices and hot chilies like Thai and Sri Lankan entrees, and sometimes they are mild like the Honduran and Colombian stews, flavored with lemon or lime juice to balance the coconut's richness, and perhaps some chopped tomato and green peppers. If you like rich sauces, the advantage of coconut sauces is that they are creamy yet parve, so you can enjoy them in kosher meals featuring chicken or meat.
BRAZILIAN CHICKEN WITH TOMATOES, COCONUT MILK AND CILANTRO
In Brazil this chicken in its luscious creamy sauce is served with rice or with cooked manioc meal. Broccoli, spinach or corn also make good accompaniments, and so does couscous. In fact, Brazil has its own version of couscous, made with cornmeal.
For a spicy stew, add two or three chopped fresh hot peppers along with the green pepper, and be generous with the cayenne in the final seasoning. For a curry, add two to three teaspoons curry paste or curry powder along with the coconut milk.
Coconut milk is traditionally made with fresh coconut but most people find it convenient to use the canned version. If you don't have canned coconut milk, you can make some from dried grated unsweetened coconut. See the note following the recipe.
If you prefer not to use as much coconut milk, replace part of it with soy milk or rice milk.
1.4 kg. chicken pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
1 green bell pepper, cut in strips
an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and diced
1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk (or
cayenne pepper or hot pepper sauce to taste
Sprinkle chicken with pepper and one tablespoon cilantro. Add lemon juice, cover and marinate one hour in refrigerator.
Heat oil in a large casserole, add onion and pepper and saute over medium heat about seven minutes. Add tomatoes and cook about five minutes over high heat, stirring often. Stir in coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Add chicken pieces and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, turning from time to time, until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes for breast pieces and about 45 to 50 minutes for leg pieces.
For a thicker sauce, remove chicken pieces and boil sauce uncovered, stirring, a few minutes to thicken, then return chicken to sauce. Add one tablespoon cilantro and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro when serving.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: To make coconut milk: Combine two cups dried grated or shredded unsweetened coconut (about 200 gr.) with 1.75 cups hot water in a food processor or blender. Process for 30 seconds. Strain, pressing hard to extract as much liquid as possible; discard coconut.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook.