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Just in: Coconut is OK

A while ago I told someone I was doing an article on the health benefits of coconut. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Are there any?”He was thinking (of course!) of the oils, which have been at the top of the list of forbidden fats for more than a decade. Coconut oil was thought to be as much of an artery-clogger as oleomargarine. But times change. And let’s not forget that at one point, medical professionals were recommending that people eat margarine instead of butter if they wanted to avoid heart attacks. Nowadays margarine, with its artery-clogging trans fats, is no longer the go-to bread spread of choice for the health conscious.But stay tuned, because nutritionists and food health experts seem to be as fickle as teenage girls choosing best friends. Who knows; oleomargarine could be promoted again to BFF* status before the end of the decade.But enough about oleomargarine. This column is actually about coconuts, and specifically about their oils and their milk. The oils of this lovely tropical nut, while not exactly good for you, are not as unhealthy as they were once made out to be. What used to be a reviled ingredient is now a huge seller among healthy eaters in general and, apparently, among vegans in particular.An article in The New York Times last week goes into great detail of this particular tropical oil’s new status as the darling of the “my body is a temple”set. Writer Melissa Clark did the research on how the oils are selling (their annual sales growth has been in the double digits, according to her source at the Whole Foods supermarket chain). She also took some of the oil home to cook with — and reports with apparent surprise that coconut oil tastes really, really good.Her informative article also quotes a professor at Cornell University who explains that one reason coconut oil got such a bad rap was that, in the studies done on it, lab rats were given partially hydrogenated oil, not virgin coconut oil. The hydrogenation process is what creates the dreaded artery-clogging trans fats.As for the milk, keep in mind that what you buy in a can at the grocery store is different than the almost-clear liquid that sloshes around inside an actual coconut. Coconut milk and cream are finely ground nut meat that has been squeezed and strained.All this intoxicatingly good news about how we can eat coconuts and their by-products again comes at a particularly apt moment: The students in the Housatonic Musical Theatre Society at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village are in rehearsal now for their spring production: “Guys and Dolls,” which of course has a pivotal scene in which the stars drink a creamy cocktail called a Dulce de Leche out of a coconut (well, they use a coconut in the movie version, at least; if you want to know what kind of vessel the students will use in their show, you’ll have to buy a ticket and go. For information, turn to Page A8). In honor of the spring musical, this week’s recipe is for a cocktail. As a general rule, since this is the health page, we don’t feature anything with alcohol in it; all readers are urged to drink only in moderation and to never drive after drinking.Coconut martiniAdapted from Food and Wine Annual Cookbook 2007Makes two cocktailsIn all the measurements, 1/4 cup is equal to 2 ouncesIce; 1/4 cup (2 ounces) coconut milk (we used unsweetened and organic);1/4 cup (2 ounces) vodka; 1/4 cup coconut rum; squeeze of fresh limeFill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the coconut milk, vodka and coconut rum and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Or an empty coconut, if you want to channel Sister Sarah and Sky Masterson on their romantic trip to Cuba.* In case you don’t have a text-messaging teenager in your house, BFF stands for Best Friend Forever.

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