17 May 2009

Stretching the Fat

Stretching Cream

It may sound like an obvious proposition, but if you're looking to cut back on the amount of fat and calories you stack up when you're using things like coocnut milk and coconut cream in recipes, you'll want to use as little as possible. Furthermore, coconut milk and coconuts aren't exactly cheap. I get my coconut milk from a wonderful Chinese market out in Queens, for about 89¢ per 15 ounce tin. This is drastically less expensive than my grocery store, where it goes for at least $1.25. And that's cheaper still than the grocery stores in Manhattan, where that same amount of coconut milk can easily go for up to $3.

Suffice it to say, these things are best used sparingly. Furthermore, they're best used as a finishing ingredient, rather than an integral ingredient. That way, you get the maximum flavour impact of the freshness of coconut coming through loud and clear. When you cook the coconut for a long time, the freshness starts to dull, and the character of the fat changes. As I've said a few million times by now, it's best to avoid cooking the coconut fat if you're trying to eat it in a healthy way. If you're making a bechamel, the hell with health, and go nuts.

So. What is the easiest method of making the fat stretch?

I find that for the most part, starch does the job really well. This can be either potatoes, flour, cornstarch, or rice, depending on the application. If you're working with a stew or something similar, and it's got lots of hearty vegetables, and you have like a backnote of cream going on, what I find works really well is to mash together the coconut milk and some cooked rice. Mash it well and vigourously, much like you were trying to make very smooth mashed potatoes. Once it's in a nice mashed mass, slowly incorporate the cooking liquid from the stew into the mash, so that the rice and coconut get dispersed in liquid. If you were try to put that ball of mashed rice directly into the pot, you'd end up with some fairly unpleasant blobs of rice floating around. Definitely not good. Once the rice and coconut are sufficiently liquidy, feel free to pour that stuff directly into the soup. Bring everything up to a full rolling boil, then drop to a simmer for about five or ten minutes. It should thicken up quite nicely. Adjust for salt at the end, of course.

If you're looking to do something more like a soup, wherein you have a smooth consistency to maintain, I find that either a roux or a slurry works well, but finely mashed potatoes don't interfere too much. Take vichyssoise for example. It's creamy all by itself, without the addition of any cream. All it is should be potatoes, leeks, a bit of oil, and salt and pepper. Anything else is a bonus. start off with about a pound or so of leeks, sliced as thin as you can get 'em. Sauté them in a bit of peanut or other vegetable oil. When they turn translucent, dump in about two pounds of new potatoes (not the starchy kinds, the waxy work better, in my opinion), peeled and chopped roughly. Stir the potatoes and leeks around in the fat for about five minutes or so, being careful not to brown the potatoes.

Add just enough water to cover the potatoes, and bring everything up to a boil. Drop down the heat to as low as it'll go, and let it gently bubble away for about 15 - 25 minutes, depending on how large you diced your potatoes. Once it's done, grind it down to a puree in a blender (if you want to grind it when it's still hot), or in a food processor (wait for it to cool down a bit, and use a fair bit less liquid to grind it), or a stick blender (if your food processor and/or blender are small, and you want to do it all at once). You won't need anything more, but a few tablespoons of coconut milk will just push it over the edge.

The vichyssoise is just an example of how powerful potatoes can be at thickening stuff. You don't quite have to go to the trouble of combining it with leeks every time (even though it's stunningly delicious). A shortcut is to nuke the potato for about four minutes (for a medium spud) on high power, and then peel it when it comes out of the microwave (be careful, it's hot!), and then mash the potato extremely well. Hell, if you want, pitch it in the blender with some water, crank that baby up, and bust out with improv potato "cream" with which to thicken your soup, stew, or whatever else. Then, at the very end, add just a fraction of coconut milk that you normally would, and watch the whole pot become creamy by association.

By the by, this also works with the ground nuts cream that I have in my book, if you don't have coconut milk.