Background information Coconuts and coconut trees are used very efficiently everywhere they are grown. The wood is used for building, the fronds are used for making roofs, the root is eaten (Heart of Palm) and the nut is used for many purposes. The outer husk material is used for stuffing in beds, pillows, etc., the hard shell surrounding the meat is used for making eating and cooking utensils, oil is extracted from the dried meat (Copra), and the juice is used in cooking and as a refreshing drink. Offhand, I can’t think of any other plant or tree with as many uses.
Everyone assumes that when a recipe calls for coconut milk that we all know how to make it from scratch. Or take it out of a can. Well, just in case there are some people out there who, have never made fresh coconut milk, here are the basics.
There are two types of fresh coconut milk. Thick or first pressed milk. And thin or second pressed milk. To make “extra virgin coconut milk” or EVCO as I now call it, you have to buy a mature coconut (generally those that are just brown husk outside), and have the man at the market grate it. If your home still has one of those neat grating contraptions, then grate it yourself. For every grated coconut, add one cup of lukewarm water (not hot) and start squeezing to extract the milk. Keep going until the liquid is nice and thick. Strain through a fine sieve and if you are particular about removing all coconut bits and solids, pass through a cheesecloth. The bits and solids can alter the texture of your cooked dish. I happen to think they are fine but others might want really smooth coconut milk. This first pressing yields a nice milk that is NOWHERE near as thick and viscous as canned milk. Generally, you can thicken it further by boiling it down. The squeezing is rather cathartic, a good replacement for punching a dummy. You can squeeze the grated coconut from several nuts at the same time. Set aside the EVCO.
From the SAME grated coconut, add 1.5-2.0 cups of lukewarm water and start squeezing again until you have extracted the remaining milk. This process yields a thinner milk that is typically used at the beginning of the cooking process for recipes with coconut milk or gata. The EVCO is added to the dish at a later stage. Make your coconut milk and use it soon after you squeeze it. While I almost always encourage people to use the fresh alternative, this is not possible in areas where you don’t have geriatric coconuts readily available (think Juneau, Alaska or Paris, France for example) and you must resort to canned alternatives. Some canned alternatives are pretty good, but they do tend to be thicker than fresh coconut milk and you just have to adjust your recipes. I find canned coconut milk an excellent way to shortcut a decent shrimp or chicken curry recipe. At least now you know how to do it from scratch if you have to.
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