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Water Cooler: Why and how to use coconut milk

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 17, 2020

The versatility of coconut milk complements a wide variety of foods. Coconut milk is poured into a pan of a Malaysian vegetarian dish.  (Pixabay)
The versatility of coconut milk complements a wide variety of foods. Coconut milk is poured into a pan of a Malaysian vegetarian dish. (Pixabay)

Coconut milk is waiting to become the shining star of your cuisine during these dark and cold months. This oil-in-water emulsion made from the liquid extraction of grated coconut pulp delivers all the creamy richness you want from a cozy meal but with tons of vibrant flavor.

Coconut milk can be up to 20% fat, which determines its thickness. This means it is a high-calorie food, but it delivers in terms of thick, creamy texture and it is also nutritionally dense. One cup has around 5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. When it comes to recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals, it provides 22% of recommended iron, 22% of magnesium, 18% of potassium, 32% of copper and 111% of manganese.

It’s not only nutritious and satisfying, but it’s shelf stable, making it a handy pantry staple. It may be unfamiliar to many, but it’s easy to use and incredibly versatile.

Its composition makes it ideal for creating flavorful dishes. Its roughly 68% water content is able to take on sweet and salty flavors, while its nearly 24% fat content can absorb and develop aromatic flavors, like those of vegetables like garlic and onion, or spices like cumin and coriander.

One of coconut milk’s claims to fame is the sweet and spicy Thai soup, tom kha kai, or tom kha gai. Tom, pronounced “dom,” means boil, and kai, pronounced “guy,” means chicken. Its galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, Thai chilis and squeeze of lime juice make for a zesty and fresh flavor profile. The rich broth is made from chicken stock or water, coconut milk and a splash of fish sauce. It’s flavored with sugar and salt and commonly garnished with cilantro. The traditional proteins in this soup include chicken, shrimp and mushrooms.

Coconut milk is the key, and because it is plant-based, this soup can be easily altered to be vegetarian or vegan. Its intense and dynamic flavor profile makes a welcome addition to the rotation of hearty, earthier foods we tend to eat during this season.

Laksa is another staple soup of Southeast Asia cuisine and comes in a variety of styles. Siamese and curry laksa both use coconut milk as part of their base. It’s a spicy noodle soup, commonly served with wheat noodles or rice vermicelli, and chicken, prawn or fish as the protein.

Speaking of curry, coconut milk makes an incredible base for curry sauces. They come in endless varieties from all over Southeast Asia. Curry is widely available in the United States and comes in a variety of forms, from powders to pastes, making it a great pantry staple to store alongside your coconut milk. Making a curry from scratch will give you a better taste and more flavor customization, but you can get started with premade options for an easy and inexpensive meal.

For a basic coconut curry, start with heating aromatic vegetables like garlic, ginger or shallots in a cooking fat until fragrant, then add in curry powder or paste to bloom its spices. You can optionally add tomato paste. Pour in the coconut milk and water or stock, adjusting the amounts for your desired consistency, then add in and cook your protein of choice. Pour over rice or your favorite grain. With little time and effort, you have a satiating, inexpensive and nutritious meal that will easily impress. If you have some bits of leftover vegetables or meat, you can easily use them up by tossing them into a coconut curry.

These are only a few ways to use coconut milk, so find some soup and sauce recipes to experiment with and make your own.

You won’t regret incorporating this flavorful, nutritious and pantry-friendly ingredient into your home cooking this winter.

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