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From coconut oil to freshly grated coconut meat, the versatile fruit is smash hit in recipes

I have a long history with the coconut, starting when I was a child on a Navy base in San Juan, Puerto Rico. � In our yard, we had a mile-high papaya tree, a wild and fruitful mango and several coconut palms, plus there were more in the neighborhood. We loved it when the big bombs fell to the ground; we were never adept at scaling the spindly, sloping trees to pluck the fruit as we'd seen the locals do. Armed with screwdrivers to get us started, my buddies and I would hack into the tough, fibrous husk to get to the fruit inside. Then we smashed the hard shells in the street, not caring one whit about the coconut water inside or that the shards could easily pierce our bare feet.

We'd sit on the curb, pick out the meat and chomp away. An island delight for sure, but nothing like the sweetened flakes we are accustomed to today.

Since then, I've sipped coconut water purchased from roadside stands in India, and more recently at the base of California Lighthouse in Aruba. In both places, a machete replaced our screwdrivers, and the top of the coconut, green husk and all, expertly hacked and colorful straw plunged inside. I paid $1. At my grocery store, I see coconut water marketed as miracle juice, at about $3 for 12 ounces.

In the last couple years, I've enjoyed many pina coladas on the decks of cruise ships and even made a few at home. When I eat Thai, I always order a curry laced with coconut. I've mastered the art of macaroons (I like mine dipped in chocolate) and toasting sweetened coconut flakes without burning them.

I always thought of myself as a peanut butter girl, but I am rethinking that label.

Recent travels are one reason I've been thinking about coconut more, but coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, has also been in the news recently. Where once it was reviled, especially the variety used in theater popcorn, virgin coconut oil is now being touted as a "good" oil that can help improve brain function and relieve stress, among other benefits. Non-virgin — that is, refined — oil doesn't get the high health marks.

Erin Meagher, owner and founder of Kelapo Coconut Oil in Tampa, says plant-based fats are processed differently in the body. They are burned quicker and not stored, she says, and that's partially why coconut oil is getting another look. Vegans like it as a replacement for butter for some recipes because it's spreadable and a solid at 76 degrees. Meagher puts a tablespoon in her oatmeal every morning.

Kelapo's cold-press extra-virgin coconut oil is organic, the fruit coming from trees in Sri Lanka. Meagher started the company in 2009 and now sells the product all around the country, mostly in health food and specialty markets, and it is widely available at such stores in the Tampa Bay area. You won't find it in major grocery stores — yet. (Kelapo.com can help you find a store near you.)

I used coconut oil in the Fresh Coconut Muffin With Crunchy Streusel and Coconut Poke Cake recipes that accompany this story, both of which were delicious. The flavor of the oil is subtle, but Meagher and other users say that it makes their baked goods fluffier and pie crusts flakier. You could substitute vegetable oil, which is what the recipes originally called for.

I used freshly grated coconut in the muffins, and with just ½ cup sugar, the muffins aren't overly sweet — but they are abundantly coconut-y, thanks to the oil, coconut milk, shredded coconut and coconut extract. There's a bit more sugar in the coconut streusel that bakes to a crunchy, golden topper. For those who don't want to go to the trouble of grating a fresh coconut, try either unsweetened or sweetened flakes, each bringing something a bit different to the final product.

The Poke Cake recipe, which is simply a doctored cake mix, is a showstopper. A thick melange of coconut cream and sweetened condensed milk is poured over the just-out-of-the-oven cake, which quickly soaks in the flavor. I toasted the coconut for the top, taking the cake from snow white to brown-speckled, which looks more interesting. Plus, toasting provides more depth of flavor.

Besides the intense coconut taste, the beauty of this cake is that it can be made at least one day ahead. It gets better as it chills.

I hauled out my deep-fryer to make coconut shrimp and was thrilled with the results. So was the family. The wolverines snarfed up 2 pounds of shrimp in just minutes. I saved some for a freezer test and can report that it was a success. The directions are included with the recipe.

It went so well, I am planning on making a batch to freeze for the in-laws coming this weekend. An impressive appetizer for their first night in town, especially dipped into a mango-rum sauce.

Of course, they might just want to see me smash a coconut on the sidewalk. An entertaining technique, if just a bit unorthodox.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>MODERATE

Coconut Shrimp With

Mango-Rum Dipping Sauce

Shrimp should be served soon after making, but they do freeze well if you want to prepare them ahead. After frying, drain on paper towels and cool completely. Freeze in a single layer on baking sheet, then place in a zip-close storage bag, removing as much air as possible. They will keep for a couple months in the freezer. To reheat, place frozen shrimp on baking sheet in single layer and bake in 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes.

1 ½ cups shredded sweetened coconut

1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, beaten

2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails left on

Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying

For the dipping sauce:

½ cup mango preserves (or orange marmalade)

1 to 2 tablespoons dark rum

In a large bowl, combine coconut and bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Place flour, eggs, and bread crumb mixture into 3 separate bowls. Dredge the shrimp in flour and shake off excess. Next, dip the shrimp thoroughly in the egg and rub against the side of the bowl to lightly remove excess. Finally, coat the shrimp thoroughly with the bread crumb mixture. Lay out the shrimp so they do not touch on a parchment-lined baking sheet or platter until ready to fry. In a large Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat several inches of oil to 350 degrees. Fry the shrimp in batches until golden brown and cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per batch. Be careful not to overcrowd shrimp in the oil while frying. Drain on paper towels.

For the dipping sauce: Heat the mango preserves in a small saucepan over low heat. Thin with rum as desired.

Serves 6 as appetizer; 4 as main course.

Source: Adapted from Ina Garten, Food Network

>>MODERATE

Fresh Coconut Muffins

With Crunchy Streusel

The reason this recipe gets a moderate rating is because of the work involved with extracting the meat from a fresh coconut. You can substitute unsweetened coconut, or even sweetened if you want extra sugar. Coconut oil comes as a solid. To liquefy, heat on low power in microwave in 15-second intervals.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 ¼ cups coconut milk

cup coconut oil (liquefied)

1 teaspoon coconut extract

1 cup grated fresh coconut

For the topping:

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup grated fresh coconut

1 tablespoon solid coconut oil

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, combine the egg, coconut milk, coconut oil and extract; mix well. Stir into dry ingredients just until combined. Stir in coconut. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups two-thirds full.

Combine the topping ingredients; sprinkle over batter. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 22 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.

Makes 9 to 10 muffins, depending on size.

Source: Adapted from Allrecipes.com

>>EASY

Coconut Poke Cake

You can use Cool Whip or another brand of topping, but fresh whipping cream adds more flavor, plus it allows you to up the coconut quotient with extract.

1 (18.25-ounce) package white cake mix

1 (14-ounce) can cream of coconut

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

1 (8-ounce) package flaked coconut, toasted

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon coconut extract

2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

Prepare and bake white cake mix according to package directions for a 9- by 13-inch pan. Remove cake from oven. While still hot, using a large-tined utility fork or even a chopstick, poke holes all over the top of the cake.

Mix cream of coconut and sweetened condensed milk together. Pour over the top of the still-hot cake. Cool completely.

While cake is cooling, toast coconut. Place coconut in a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir occasionally and watch closely. Once it starts to brown, it will burn quickly because of the oil. Remove from pan immediately or the residual heat will continue to cook (and burn) coconut. Let cool completely.

Whip the cream with an electric beater until soft peaks form. This may take 5 minutes. Add flavorings and confectioners' sugar, continue until stiff peaks form. Do not overbeat or cream will become grainy.

Once cake has cooled, spread whipped topping evenly over the top, then sprinkle with toasted coconut. Refrigerate immediately.

Note: This cake gets better after refrigeration. The topping will deflate slightly, but the coconut flavor gets more intense. In our testing, it was still delicious two full days after it was made.

Serves about 12.

Source: Adapted from allrecipes.com

How to crack a coconut

Fresh coconuts are usually sold minus their husks in the produce section. Cracking through the shell to get to the meat and water inside can be daunting. Here's one way:

There are three dark "eyes" at one end of the coconut, and one is soft. Poke each with a screwdriver, sharp, thin knife or even an instant-read thermometer. Your utensil will easily go through the soft eye. Move it around to widen the hole. Now you can shake the coconut and collect the water in a glass. It should taste clean with a subtle coconut flavor. If it tastes unpleasant, the coconut might be old. The meat will still be good, but discard water.

If you prefer not to smash your coconut on the pavement, try placing it, with the hole punched through the eye, on the middle rack of a preheated 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. This will crack the outer shell. Use a hammer and break off pieces. Wrap the coconut in a clean kitchen cloth to keep shards from flying. The shell will come away from the meat in some of the pieces. For pieces where that doesn't happen, use a screwdriver to pry away meat.

You can peel the thin, brown skin from the meat with a vegetable peeler. It is edible, though, and I don't bother.

Janet K. Keeler

About coconut

You'll find lots of ways to buy coconut, often stocked in many areas in the grocery store. Here's a rundown of the most popular commercial coconut products

Fresh coconut

The hard-shelled fruit is found in the produce section with its husk removed.

Sweetened coconut

This is sometimes called flaked and can occasionally be found frozen. It's normally in bags in the baking aisle and is used in baked goods, savory dishes and salads.

Unsweetened coconut

Sometimes referred to as desiccated coconut, this is a grated, dried, and unsweetened coconut meat. Most often, unsweetened coconut comes in bags and is stocked with the organic foods.

Coconut water

The liquid from the center of the coconut. It's thin and has a subtle coconut flavor. In addition to obtaining it from fresh coconuts, you'll find it in refrigerator cases where organic and natural food is stocked.

Coconut milk

Coconut water that has been mixed with the liquid from pressed coconut meat. It is unsweetened, but thicker and more flavorful than coconut water. It is often stocked with Asian foods. You'll find regular and "lite," or lower fat, versions.

Cream of coconut

A sweetened, thick coconut cream used in baking and tropical cocktails such as pina coladas. It's stocked near the beer and wine section of grocery stores with other drink mixers.

Coconut oil

Oil extracted from fresh coconut. It's solid at 76 degrees or under and can be used in place of vegetable oil or butter in many dishes. There are a number of organic varieties, and it can be found at health and natural food stores. Some grocery stores stock coconut oil, either unrefined in the organic section or refined versions by the cooking oils.

Coconut extract

Found in the baking aisle with other flavorings, concentrated coconut flavoring is used mostly in baking to enhance taste.

From coconut oil to freshly grated coconut meat, the versatile fruit is smash hit in recipes 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 4:30am]

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