Making the Most of Coconuts in the Kitchen

Generally, caught up in the construction of a garden, I think of plants for their purposes in design. This one is nitrogen-fixing, this one deep-tapping. it’s good for chop-and-drop mulch, a bug-deterrent, a perennial version of something annual, shade-tolerance, water-resistance, or any combination thereof. Sometimes I get so lost in those elements of cultivation, that I forget the real reason much of the cultivating is done: To eat.

Of course, I remember that I’m growing things for food (My mind is always on the next meal), but what I really mean is that I fail to think about just how versatile some of the crops are in the kitchen, how a bundle of basil might transform into dried herbs for the pantry, a leafy salad green, fresh garnish for soup, pesto sauce for pasta, a health-boosting tea, or a nice addition to some strawberry ice pops. It’s just as fun to imagine all of the household uses for something, like basil, that works so diligently in the garden.

Amongst the tops on my list of useful things growing around me—granted they do not work for farms everywhere—are coconuts. I’ve been working and living in the tropics for quite some time now, and this is a crop that is simply second to none in its kitchen usefulness. While organic coconut oil and coconut water have recently gone trendy, coconuts are good for far more, all the while providing worthwhile concentration of calories and healthy attributes.

Drinks All Around

Piña Colada (Courtesy of Randy Robertson)
Piña Colada (Courtesy of Randy Robertson)

Aside from piña coladas, coconuts have a few other viable—though not quite as fun—options for making drinks. Even so, having something in the garden that provides

Firstly, there is pure and (somewhat) simple coconut water, which is distinctly delicious and more rejuvenating than just water water. It packs a punch of natural electrolytes so that it has become a common sports drink for health-conscious folks steering clear of corn syrup and artificial coloring. Generally, coconut water comes from younger, large green coconuts, but the water—in lesser supply—is also available from older coconuts in which the meat has fully formed. In fact, the best way I’ve learned to test of fallen coconut for use in the kitchen is to shake it and listen for the water to slosh.

Though not as conveniently come by, coconut milk is also absolutely fantastic, a personal favorite for coffee cream, ice cream and even yogurt. The easier, fattier (and, thus, tastier) way to prepare it is to add a cup of hot but not boiling water for every cup of shredded coconut. Blend them together and strain the liquid through a cheesecloth. Repeat the process once more using the same pulp and another cup of water. (Be sure to save the pulp, we’ll get to that a little later.) When the milk sits, it will begin to separate into a thin, skim milk, if you will, and coconut oil. I like to shake this back up and drink it full fat, but it’s possible to take away the oil for use elsewhere and have a less fatty, less creamy drink.

Why Not Get Fat

Coconut Oil (Courtesy of Phu Thinh Co)
Coconut Oil (Courtesy of Phu Thinh Co)

But, seriously, we are in the age of coconut fat being a healthy fat, so why on earth would we not take full advantage of that and enjoy coconut oil as metabolism-boosting, heart-helping form of goodness.

Virgin organic coconut oil is all the rage these days, not just for the kitchen, where it is absolutely amazing, but also for all sorts of personal hygiene ventures. For now, though, we’ll stick to the kitchen. Coconut oil is particular good for cooking because it has a high burning temperature, meaning that it can withstand the stovetop, unlike other “healthy” oils like olive and almond. When not cooked, however, it also supplies lots of health benefits. What’s more is that it really isn’t so difficult to render on a modest, homestead scale.

But, why stop with oil when there is coconut butter? This is more like a peanut butter than a butter for a dinner roll, but it’s absolutely taste (especially in combination with a nut butter), and it’s very easy to make. Take the coconut meat, put it in a blender, and press “go”. Let those piece whirl around until get nice and creamy, and there it is. Then, it’s easy to add coconut to smoothies (without getting shredded bits in your drink), or making a coconut butter and pineapple jam sandwich never hurt anyone’s feelings, either.

Treat Yourself Right

Coconut Macaroons (Courtesy of Stacy)
Coconut Macaroons (Courtesy of Stacy)

Lastly, coconut has long held sway as a fantastic treat. We all have gone—or should rush to do so—the macaroon route, and most of us are familiar with shredded coconut atop fruit cakes or toasted with some raisins and peanuts on a curry stew. But, there is more!

Coconut meat is amongst my favorite snacks while I work. I take it by the hunk from the fridge or wherever and walk around gnawing it. It’s full of calories, vitamins and minerals that provide the oomph needed to keep going. On really special occasions, my wife will make coconut bacon, little slices of coconut marinated and baked in a mixture of liquid smoke, soy sauce, syrup (or honey), water and so on. The problem with coconut bacon, many a volunteer can attest to, is that it is wholly addicting and disappears too quickly.

Then, there is getting back to that pulp from when we made the coconut cream. A secondary use for that is to dry it out and make coconut flour. The flour has almost of vanilla cake flavor about it, but of course, it is completely glutton-free and good for all sorts of health benefits. It’s easy: Take the pulp and spread it out on a cookie sheet for a few hours; then, either put it in the dehydrator to finish drying out or do it low and slow in the oven. After it’s dry, throw it back in the blender—no water this time—and blend it into coconut flour. It’s fantastic for cookies, cakes and desserts of all sorts.

Coconuts Are Multipurpose Everywhere

Shark (Courtesy of NOAA Ocean Explorer)
Shark (Courtesy of NOAA Ocean Explorer)

What’s amazing is that coconuts aren’t just good for the kitchen. Once all is said and eaten, the shells are great for artisanal goods, such as jewelry, bowls, and candle holders. The coir, makes for a great airy addition to potting soil, can be used for soundproofing, is soft enough to utilize as stuffing, and makes a killer mulch. In the right hands, armed with a sharpened machete, is even possible to whip up some pretty fine hanging basket and/or planter using the soft, outer husks, though the locals I’ve learned this from have proved much more skillful at it than me.

Whatever the case, coconuts rock as an addition to the garden, too. They are more or less maintenance-free, and they hang around providing food for a long time. The fronds make for excellent mulch material, and yet for all their spreading, coconut palms usually work as a spindly, space-saving canopy tree, meaning in a food forest, they are a fantastic for filling a small opening. One thing I do like to tell people, however, is that coconuts do have a reputation for being one of the more dangerous plants: More people are killed by falling coconuts each year than by shark attack (Well, folks like to say it.). Some risks are just worth taking.

Feature Photo: Which Came First, the Coconut or the Palm? (Courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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