In the Phillipines, it’s called the “Tree of Life.” Malays refer to it as pokok seribu guna, “the tree of a thousand uses.” Yes, today’s edition of Smart Fuel is all about the coconut. I’m going to focus purely on the culinary benefits, but the non-culinary, utilitarian advantages of the coconut are many, varied, and point to the coconut’s position as the ultimate Primal food. We can imagine early man using the husks for ropes and brushes, the leaves for roofing material and basket making, and the dried shells for musical instruments or food storage. Nowadays, coconut water is used as an intravenous fluid, the empty shells as improvised explosive devices, and the husks as floor buffers. Now, none of that probably concerns you, but I find it absolutely fascinating. Okay – on to the actual meat of the topic.
The common coconut, the fruit of the coconut tree, is actually a nut (looking at the word “coconut,” I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising, but we have a history of bestowing the name “nut” on non-nuts, so I thought I should clarify). It is edible in all stages of development, but the meat changes as it ages. In the younger, greener years, the coconut meat is soft, almost gelatin-like – enough so to earn the moniker “coconut jelly.” This is when the coconut water is the sweetest; as it ages, the water can get a bit bitter. Older coconuts – the hairy ones – are incredibly tough to crack, but the meat is dense, slightly sweet, and perfect for shredding or cooking.
Coconut meat is high in healthy saturated fat, with decent amounts of protein and a low glycemic index. A cup of shredded, raw coconut meat contains 27 grams of fat, mostly saturated; 3 grams of protein; and 12 grams of carbohydrates, mostly fiber. It can also be dried and ground into coconut flour, which can effectively replace traditional flours for Primal baking or sauce thickening (much like other popular nut flours).
Another delicious aspect of the coconut is the water. Coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk, which is actually manmade – see below for a recipe) is that liquid you hear sloshing around inside. As I said earlier, the younger coconuts will have sweeter water, so go for those. Of course, you could just buy the pre-drained coconut water, but I think cracking your own coconut and draining it yourself is much more enjoyable (and Primal). Coconut water has natural electrolytes (potassium and other minerals), making it an effective (albeit expensive) sports drink. It also just tastes great, and isn’t that reason enough to drink it?
But coconut oil is perhaps the greatest Primal food obtained from the coconut. It’s good for moderately low-heat cooking, or you could just eat it with a spoon for a serving of healthy fat. In a previous post, coconut oil figured prominently in our recipe for Primal Energy Bars. It’s a great binder, especially for nut and fruit bars. I guess you could technically use olive oil, but that just doesn’t sound very appetizing. Oh, and with coconut oil, you’ll want to get the unrefined variety (in true Primal fashion). Keep coconut oil at room temperature, and don’t let it get too hot or too cold.
How to Pick a Coconut
Most coconuts you come across will likely be in an air-conditioned produce section, so the quality and freshness are mostly assured. Still, you want to pick the very best nuts possible. It’s not all that complicated an elimination process, to be honest: pick the heaviest coconuts that slosh the most, and watch out for soft spots. And obviously you’ll want to avoid any blatant discolorations.
Opening a Coconut
This is arguably the best part. Opening a coconut is good, honest work, and it should unlock your inner hunter-gatherer. Young coconuts go pretty easily. All you need is a large, sharp knife (like a cleaver, or a machete, or a large chef’s knife). As you’ll see in the video below, the tops of most young store-bought coconuts are triangular points with the hard green shell already removed, making it easy to hack off.
Mature coconuts are hard and hairy. You may want to drain the mature coconut before opening it – do so by locating the three “eyes” of the coconut, and then driving a nail or screwdriver through the soft one. After the liquid is drained, find the equator. There should be a small, but apparent seam running between the “eyes.” Hit a blunt object (hammer or heavy dull side of a knife) along the seam, and it should crack open.
Another method is to put the coconut in a durable bag and crush it with a large rock or hammer. Or, you could treat it like a modified Primal workout and slam it repeatedly against the ground. Either way, the coconut flesh is actually more easily obtainable in tiny pieces. To get the meat, pry it off with a butter knife.
Okay, you’ve got your hands on some fresh coconut. What now?
Homemade Coconut Milk
Contrary to popular opinion, coconut milk has to be made. It doesn’t occur naturally. Here’s how to do it at home:
2.5 ounces fresh grated coconut (finely grated – use a food processor if you have to)
1 1/2 cups hot (simmering) water
Pour water over coconut shavings. Let sit for five minutes, and then puree the mixture in a blender. Strain the puree through a cheesecloth or strainer, making sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. For thicker milk, use less water. Use the milk in any recipe that calls for it, or just drink it straight. Enjoy.
Primal Coconut Pudding
This incredibly easy pudding recipe is best served hot and fresh.
1 can coconut milk (or use an equal amount of homemade milk)
1 egg yolk
3 or 4 tablespoons almond flour
A bit of maple syrup or honey
Stir yolk, flour, and honey/syrup together to form a paste. Using a small pan, heat it over medium heat for one minute. Add the milk and turn the heat up. Once it starts boiling, stir continuously to get all the lumps out. Once it’s smooth, turn off the heat and serve. A few berries, nuts, or banana slices go well with this. Maybe add a drop or two of vanilla, or even a pinch of cinnamon.
Thai Coconut Soup
It’s all too often that we forgo Thai food because rice, noodles, and peanuts figure so prominently in the cuisine. This soup recipe is Primal while retaining the Thai essence.
6 cups chicken stock
2-4 hot chiles (Thai, jalepeno, habanero, depending on your bravery), finely chopped and seeded (or not, again depending on your bravery)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon lime zest
1/4 cup lime juice
4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups baby spinach
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Chicken (in strips), shrimp, or your favorite protein source
In a medium saucepan, combine broth, chiles, garlic, ginger, zest, lime juice, and 3 tablespoons of fish sauce and season with salt. Bring to a simmer and add mushrooms. After three minutes of simmering, add the meat and coconut milk. Cook the meat through, then add the spinach, letting it simmer until the spinach wilts. Add the cilantro and the remaining fish sauce. Serve and enjoy.