Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cracking the coconut

Last week I got myself a coconut and today I decided to get that thing open. I had to wait until I had a day off because I think this is something best done outside and I don't get home from work until after it's started getting dark these days.

I did a bit of research on coconut opening techniques and found that an expert coconuteer can hold it one hand, a machete in the other and have it open in moments. That was out as I wanted my fingers nowhere near the blade during this process. Another method I've seen is embedding a tall metal or bamboo spike in the ground and repeatedly impaling the coconut and ripping off chunks of husk. If there was a wrought iron fence with pointy bits on top nearby I might give that a try. But since I don't, plan C is to just lay the coconut on an open piece of ground and whack at it with the biggest knife I've got. That knife would be my Chinese cleaver. Not quite a machete, but not bad.

This process has several stages because a coconut has several layers. The labels on the cross-sectional diagram I found are rather botanical but you can see, from outside to in: the outer shell, the fibrous husk, the inner woody hull of the nut (actually a drupe), the meat and the water.

The first step is to cut through the hard shell and then pull the blade sideways to tear out chunks of husk. The shell wasn't as tough as I expected, possibly because this particular coconut is pretty ripe (I'm guessing at that because it's yellow with black spots instead of green like some of the others I saw.), and the husk comes loose with just a bit of effort. But man is there a lot of husk to deal with. I keep on chopping and tearing and chopping and tearing and there's no sign of the brown I expect to see under all of that.

Eventually, maybe 10 minutes later, one cleaver blow goes "chonk" instead of "chumpf" and it seems I've finally hit the hull. But I still don't see anything brown or any sign of separation between the layers that might make things go more easily.

I decide to clear away some more husk to see what there is to see, but I start getting splashed a little and I see I've broken the hull open so it's time to drain out the coconut water. I'm a little disappointed as I had hoped to have a clean solid Gilligan's-Island-looking coconut to work with. For one thing, you get to pound nails into the eyes, pull them out and then pour out the coconut water like a juicebox. Once you've done that, there's a neat trick where you tap the coconut around its circumference with the back of your knife until it cracks open into two pieces. But I'm not going to get to do either. Instead I pour out the coconut water into a bowl, filter out the bit of dirt and husk that got in, and put it away. I read that there's supposed to be less water in a ripe coconut, but I got a fair bit: well over a cup. OK, I've done some more research and while there's a lot of contradictory information out there, I think I've got a half-ripe "water coconut" or "drinking coconut". That explains why I've got so much water. Fully ripe coconuts are relatively dried out, shrunken and hard. I probably wouldn't have been able to get into it using my makeshift methodology so I chose correctly out of the pile at least.

From what I've been reading, there's not much to be done with coconut water except to just drink it (generally with rum). And it is pleasant enough straight, although not nearly as sweet as I was led to expect. I spooned a few teaspoons over the scallops I'm marinating for ceviche; that ought to work.

Since I've got an edge to work with, the husk is easier to peel off, so I clean out some space, break off a chunk, and do it again until I can reach in to scrape out the meat. I've read that this is a tough job that requires special tools and results in flakes, but I'm scraping it out with a teaspoon like an avocado. The texture is more rubbery though--like overcooked lobster. This morning, when I was doing the scraping, I didn't know what to make of this so I figured it was best to play it safe, avoid the recipes calling for flakes of fresh coconut, and just make some coconut milk.

Instructions for coconut milk say to put the coconut meat into a blender with some wildly varying amount of boiling water, blend, let cool, and then squeeze the liquid out through cheesecloth. They also say not to bother as canned coconut milk comes from Thai coconuts which are far superior for the purpose. But I've come this far so I guess I may as well give it a try and see what I get.

I've got over six ounces of coconut flesh as opposed to the two and a half the recipes describe and, from the texture, it's clear it contains a good bit of water it's not supposed to so I blend it with just a couple cups of boiling water. After I cool it, I try to squeeze the liquid through a couple layers of paper towels, since I haven't been able to find cheesecloth anywhere, but the perforations stymie me. Upon closer inspection it doesn't really seem to need filtering as the meat blended in quite nicely. It's also not especially rich, sweet or flavorful as coconut milk goes. I'm not sure I should bother using it all considering I've got cans of far superior product in my pantry. Maybe if I add some sugar and cook it down a bit it may become more appealing. I may not have ended up with a useful ingredient, but I have learned a good bit about coconuts and had an interesting experience so it's not been an entirely wasted effort.

1 comment:

kat said...

Whew! what a job. I'm a big fan of fresh coconut just to snack on but opening makes it a rare treat. I think I'll just have to head back to Maui & buy one off the side of the road from a guy with a machete