From Scratch: Coconut Milk

I'm approaching the end of my bachelor's degree; I'm down to just three classes and my senior project. Because of this, posts may not be as frequent as usual through June as I devote my time to finishing my degree. I can't believe I'm almost done!

We recently discovered Rancho Markets when they opened a new location in Magna and they've quickly become our go-to place for fresh produce. The prices are fantastic, particularly on sale days, and we can get all sorts of produce for about $15. This is about half the average price for the same items at stores like Winco and Walmart and frankly, the quality is better. Like the gorgeous red apples we bought at 25c per pound -- they were not only beautifully ripe and unwaxed but also organic!

(I should add that we don't live in an area well-served by co-ops, CSAs or farmer's markets. Our local county market only runs for two months, so, unlike many foodies, we're heavily dependent on grocery stores for our produce, even in the growing season.)

Last week, Rancho had Thai coconuts for 89c each so we picked up two fine specimens. We love eating fresh coconut but this time, our goal was to make our own coconut milk and some great Thai food.

Boy, did we ever succeed. I'll post about the recipes we made later this week, but for today, let's just focus on how to make the base ingredient from scratch: coconut milk.

Yes, you can buy coconut milk in cans. Most of the year, this is the cheapest way to acquire good coconut milk. Personally, I prefer the Thai Kitchen brand because it has coconut cream (solidified coconut milk), no additives and good taste where many of the other brands can be watery and bland. However, when coconuts are available, why not make your own? The two Thai coconuts we bought resulted in about 16 ounces of coconut milk plus tasty coconut fluffies to add to pancakes and smoothies for less than the price of 1 can.

I select coconuts that are heavy for their size and have a distinct "sloshing" noise when shaken. I want a lot of liquid in my coconuts. The husk should be relatively clean with no soft spots. Don't worry if you're not up for making this when they go on sale - an unopened coconut can be stored in the pantry for up to 6 months depending on how ripe it is, according to Melissa's.

Preparing coconuts is fairly simple. Take a clean nail or scratch awl and a tap hammer. Tap a hole through two of the three eyes on the coconut and drain out the coconut water into a small bowl. Preheat the oven to 325F and bake the coconut on a baking rack for about 30 minutes.

Remove it from the oven and set it on a sturdy work surface. Let it cool a bit so you can touch it and then crack it open with a hammer. It shouldn't take too much effort. Using a paring knife (or an oyster knife, if you have one), remove the white flesh from the brown skin and cut it into chunks. It should be fairly easy to remove.

Now for the fun part: making coconut milk.

Process the chunks of coconut flesh in a food processor or blender until coarsely chopped. Add the reserved coconut water (don't go over the fill line in the food processor, for this, it may be easier to use a blender) and blend until pureed. If you don't have much coconut water, add boiling water to cover.

I might add here that fresh coconut water is incredibly good. Much, much better than the canned "coconut water" they're selling in stores now. If you chill the coconut in the fridge for a few days, you can have fresh ice-cold coconut water for a snack when you do this! (Of course, then you need to use boiling water to make the milk.)

Take a clean piece of cheesecloth or a flour sack towel and line a colander or sieve with it. Set the colander into a bowl and pour in the coconut puree. Gather up the edges and press the liquid out until you're left with fairly dry coconut shreds.

You've just made coconut milk! I needed two coconuts to produce about 16 ounces or so of coconut milk. It won't last long - only a couple of days in the fridge, so make sure you have meals planned to use up the milk that day or the next.

But what do you do with the coconut fluffies left? Most people say to throw them away - they don't have too much flavor left now that the milk has been extracted. However, we found that they were a great addition to pancakes, cereal, smoothies and breading for shrimp or karbonāde. (My husband especially likes to use it when he makes a Dutch Baby for breakfast.)

Later this week: What we did with our fresh coconut milk!