– Story and recipes by Chef Heidi Fink Photography by Don Denton
Coconut milk is a wonder in the kitchen. It is a dairy-free miracle of creamy liquid that enriches every recipes it touches. Coconut milk is not only a wonderful substitute for dairy products, but a delicious ingredient in its own right.
We most often encounter coconut milk in Thai food, cooked into rich curries and flavourful soups, but it can be used anywhere you might use cream in recipes. Think homemade ice cream, puddings and cakes; whipped toppings and custards; soups, dipping sauces and marinades; and, of course, cocktails and smoothies.
Its high fat content often scares people off, but coconut milk has a ton of health benefits. It is high in magnesium, potassium and selenium; its fat comes in the form of a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, one of the healthiest and most digestible forms of fat for human consumption. So enjoy that creamy coconut whip to your heart’s content!
Good coconut milk has a mild sweet flavour and rich mouthfeel, which works well with all kinds of foods. I love it equally in seafood curry and sweetened on fresh berries. It can also be used to revive dried coconut into a great approximation of fresh coconut. (Those of you who have tried making authentic South East Asian or Caribbean food know the pain of trying to find, open, peel and grate a fresh coconut.) I’ve included instructions below for this great “fresh” coconut hack!
Most importantly, good coconut milk should not be “milky” at all. It should be thick and creamy, solid enough to spoon out of the can; not runny like milk. See the sidebar below for tips on how to find the best and thickest milk in the can. Once opened, coconut milk will last four or five days in the fridge, and several months in the freezer. It does separate a bit after freezing, but can still be used in almost any recipe (except coconut whip) with good results.
There are so many ways to use coconut milk in the kitchen; I have barely scratched the surface with the recipes here. Use these as inspiration for your next can of coconut milk, and then try branching out into coconut cake, creamy soup or satay sauce. Or you can do what I do: find excuses to make coconut whip every week.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CAN OF COCONUT MILK
This might be the top favourite tip that I give in my cooking classes. The best way to choose a can of coconut milk is to shake the can. You should hear no noise, no liquid sloshing at all. Good quality coconut milk is solid at room temperature; it separates into a really thick rich cream and a thinner watery milk underneath. You should be spooning the milk out of the can, not pouring it.
A good quality can of coconut milk should be at least half solid cream, plugging the can effectively, so that even the thinner milk at the bottom can’t slosh around when you shake it.
Do not make a purchase decision based on price, on brand, on labels that say “coconut cream,” or even based on brands you had success with in the past. Every can of coconut milk will be different, even within the same brand. Just keep shaking cans until you find one that makes no noise.
“FRESH” COCONUT HACK
One of my favourite coconut hacks is to create an excellent substitute for fresh coconut using dried unsweetened coconut soaked in rich coconut milk. Fresh coconut has a rich sweetness that can be hard to replicate in recipes if you only have access to dried coconut; this hack does the job beautifully.
1½ cups dried unsweetened coconut
1 can coconut milk
Place the dried coconut in a bowl. Bring the coconut milk to a rolling boil. Immediately pour the boiling coconut milk over the dried coconut in the bowl. Stir well to combine. Set aside for about 30 minutes, until the dried coconut has absorbed most or all of the coconut milk. Use in any recipe that calls for grated fresh coconut (eg. Coconut, Chili and Cilantro Chutney below).
QUICK WEEKNIGHT RED THAI CURRY
Serves 4 to 6 with rice.
A cornerstone of my Basic Thai cooking class, this is a recipe that takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish. The addition of fresh aromatics combined with the proper cooking technique are what makes this recipe stand apart from one you may have tried before.
Almost all of these ingredients can be purchased at most supermarkets in town. If there is anything you can’t find, feel free to omit it.
1½ Tbsp vegetable oil
1 can Maesri red curry paste, OR 2 to 3 Tbsp Thai Kitchen red curry paste
1½ Tbsp minced lemongrass (1 stalk lemongrass)
1 Tbsp minced fresh or frozen galangal, OR 1 tsp fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 400 mL can good quality coconut milk
3 Tbsp fish sauce
1 to 1½ lbs fresh prawns, peeled
1 red bell pepper, halved, seeded and sliced into pointy wedges
2 baby bok choi, sliced OR other green vegetable of your choice
1 Tbsp palm sugar, or yellow sugar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
4 makrut lime leaves, sliced
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh Thai basil
Using a mortar and pestle, roughly mash the minced lemongrass, the minced galangal or ginger, and the sliced garlic with a pinch of salt. Alternatively, mince everything together as finely as possible on your cutting board.
Open the can of coconut milk. It should have separated into a thick, spoonable coconut “cream” at the top of the can and a thinner coconut water underneath. Scoop out all of the thick cream into a liquid measuring cup, leaving the thinner water behind in the can. You should have 1 cup of thick coconut cream. If not, open a second can of coconut milk and scoop the thick milk off it until you have enough thick coconut milk to proceed. Reserve the thin watery coconut milk. Scoop about 2 Tbsp of the thick cream into a small bowl and set aside.
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the curry paste and the mashed or minced lemongrass mixture. Sauté, stirring constantly for about 30 seconds, and then add 2 tablespoons only of thick coconut cream. Cook, stirring, until the oil separates from the coconut milk and most of the liquid has evaporated. The curry paste should smell fragrant, but not burnt. This cooking technique is the most important part of this recipe.
Now add the rest of the thick coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the vegetables, fish sauce and sugar. If the mixture seems too thick, add a bit of the reserved thin watery coconut milk. Simmer 5 minutes, until vegetables are just getting tender. Stir in the prawns and lime leaves. Simmer for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the prawns are just cooked through. Add the lime juice and basil and remove from heat. Stir well to combine everything. Taste to adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve immediately on top of steamed jasmine rice.
COCONUT, CHILI AND CILANTRO CHUTNEY
Makes 1.5 cups
This absolutely delicious, nutty, spicy and slightly sweet chutney is always included with breakfast in Southern India. It pairs perfectly with roasted potatoes and other root vegetables as a side dish or appetizer; it’s also excellent with crispy pappadum, chewy naan or mild lentils. It is usually made with fresh coconut, but I have used the Fresh Coconut Hack (above) in this variation.
1 cup dried unsweetened medium coconut +
1 cup canned coconut milk
(OR 1¼ cup grated fresh coconut)
4 green onions OR 1 large shallot, peeled
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 to 3 jalapeños, with seeds, if desired (*see note below)
1 cup packed cilantro leaves and soft stems
¼ tsp salt (or to taste)
1 tsp light brown sugar
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice (optional)
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds
*For a medium-spice level, use 1 to 2 jalapeños with no seeds or membranes. To increase the spiciness, include the seeds and/or increase the numbers of jalapeños. In Southern India and Sri Lanka, this chutney (also known as Coconut Sambar) is scorchingly spicy, packed with fresh green chilies.
If using dried coconut, place it in a small bowl. Bring the coconut milk to a boil in a small pot and pour it over the dried coconut. Let sit for 1 hour.
Place the green onions (or shallots), ginger, jalapeños, cilantro, salt and brown sugar in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl and process again, this time until the ingredients are very finely chopped, but not puréed. Scrape this mixture into the bowl with the soaked dried coconut and mix well.
(If using fresh coconut, omit the step involving the coconut milk — you will not be using the coconut milk at all. Place the green onions, ginger, jalapeños, cilantro, salt and brown sugar in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until ingredients are chopped small. Add the fresh coconut and process until everything is ground up small, but not puréed. Stop to scrape down the sides as necessary. Remove to a bowl.)
To finish either chutney: Heat the oil and the mustard seeds in a small skillet over medium heat. As soon as the seeds begin to turn gray and pop, immediately pour them while still hot into your bowl of chutney. They will make a loud, hot-oil sound as you pour, but that is normal. Mix well with a spoon. Taste. You may decide that you want to use the optional lime juice (I usually only use it when I have fresh coconut) and you may want more salt.
This chutney should be served at room temperature.
SWEET BLACK RICE AND COCONUT PUDDING
I have “westernized” this traditional Thai dessert to a North American-style creamy soft rice pudding texture, with excellent results. Black rice is chewy and flavourful and cooks to a purple hue — wonderful in this dessert. Dairy free, gluten free and to-die-for delicious!
1½ cups of Thai black rice (also known as black sweet rice and black glutinous rice)
4½ cups of water
2 cans (400 mL each) of coconut milk
1⁄3 cup light brown sugar
2 large disks of palm sugar (or 2⁄3 cup more light brown sugar)
¾ tsp salt
Sliced mango, peach, strawberry, golden kiwi or banana
Rinse rice well in several changes of cold water. Drain well. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine water and rice. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and reduce heat to the lowest possible setting.
Let cook for 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, open one of the cans of coconut milk. It will have separated into a thicker coconut “cream” at the top of the can, and a thinner coconut “water” at the bottom. Scoop off as much of the cream as possible and place in a bowl. Mix ¼ tsp of the salt and the 1⁄3 cup light brown sugar into the bowl with the cream. Place the bowl in the fridge. This will be used later on for a delicious creamy topping.
Once the rice has cooked and absorbed most of the water, stir in the coconut “water” left over from the first can as well as the entire contents of the second can of coconut milk. Also add the remaining ½ tsp salt and the disks of palm sugar (or 2⁄3 cup light brown sugar, if using). Continue to cook the rice, covered, over low heat for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the whole thing looks creamy and pudding-y.
Pour into a large bowl and let cool to room temperature. Stir it every once in a while to prevent the top from drying out. Once cool, dish the pudding out into individual dessert bowls. Top each one with a dollop of reserved sweetened coconut cream and slices of fresh seasonal fruit.
You can check out more recipes or find out about classes with Chef Heidi Fink here.