Wednesday, February 20, 2013

For the Love of Coconuts

Testing out a paleo + raw foods strategy involved removing most of the foods I was used to eating every meal: breads, pasta, rice, beans, and all processed sugar. At first, I definitely remember wondering what else there is to eat. :)  Turns out, there is quite a lot. (For another post.) Most people who see me eat nowadays marvel at the quantity of food I am consuming. By volume, I consume a lot of greens & vegetables (for vitamin, mineral, and water content), but those are very low calorie. Fruits do have some calories, but even eating several servings a day does not really put a dent in my calorie goals.

Once you eliminate grains, legumes, and sugar from your diet, it is actually some work and planning required add in enough calories per day. After lots and lots of reading, I have become extremely skeptical about the mainstream health advice which advocates avoiding fat. (Trans fat and other oxidized fats, yes, by all means, I agree those should be avoided.) Instead, I am testing an approach where most of my calories come from high quality fat sources; namely avocados and mature coconuts. Mature coconuts contain mostly medium chain saturated fats ( While I suspect fear of saturated fats in general is misplaced, the medium-chain saturated fats in coconuts is metabolized entirely differently then other types of fats (seems to even bypass the need for bile from the gallbladder).

Mature coconuts are also very high in calories which is where I get most of my energy nowadays. I try to eat at least 1/2 a mature coconut (morning smoothie) and 1 or two avocados (dinner) per day which is my baseline calorie level. From there, I add in a variety of fruits, and some portions of meat to add on more calories. I estimate my macronutrient levels are roughly: 60% fats; 15% animal-based protein; 25% carbs. I plan on getting a vitamin & mineral blood test in the spring to monitor the results of my food strategy & will post the results.

Coconut Uses
Besides providing high quality fatty acids and calories, coconuts offer so many other compelling nutritional benefits. The liquid inside the coconuts (coconut water) is so compatible with human blood that it was used in transfusions during WWII ( I am also impressed by the vitamin and mineral content both of the water and the meat. Coconut meat can be blended with water & strained to make you own coconut milk & coconut flour. Even though stores are starting to sell coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut flakes, I would prefer to buy my own coconuts & make these myself, in order to have the highest quality food for the lowest cost.

Young Coconuts
In the produce section, you will probably find both young and mature coconuts. The young coconuts, also called Thai coconuts, are cross pollinated with date palms and are very sweet with a much lower fat content than mature coconuts. You will usually find these in the stores wrapped in plastic with white husks shaped into a point at one end. The young coconuts are completely filled with water, so you won’t hear anything when you shake them. There are quite a few YouTube videos showing people opening these. You basically hack off the top, drink the water, and then scoop out the soft meat with a spatula (or a spoon). The meat inside is very gelatinous and can be blended with water to make a nice custard. (All of these could also be fermented to make a coconut kefir or coconut yogurt.) Unfortunately, I have not seen any organic young coconuts in my stores, and I am concerned that imported coconuts might be irradiated ‘for your safety’. Since my food strategy involves reducing sugar, increasing high quality fats, and buying organic whenever possible (for stricter quality standards), I almost exclusively buy mature coconuts.

Mature Coconuts
Mature coconuts have a hard round shell (brown or white). The meat is much more developed than the young coconuts and they do not contain as much water. You should hear the water sloshing around inside when you give it a shake (the heavier the better). I would avoid any coconut shells that have cracks or green/black mold spots on the eyes (the whiter the eyes, the more likely it is to be fresh). I think the main reason these things have not caught on is the challenge of getting into them! (And before I knew about those tips on how to pick out coconuts, I ended up with many bad ones – an expensive lesson.) Even though there are various strategies online about opening mature coconuts, I have some of my own tips & tricks and thought I’d share.

Opening a Mature Coconut

Clockwise: Glove, Glasses, Cleaver,
Coconut Knife, Coconut Tool, Coconut!

Tools I use (these have saved me so much time & hassle):

  • Coconut Tool (Bought mine on Amazon)
  • Cleaver: (Kitchen store)
  • Safety Glasses  (Bought on Amazon)
  • Cut resistant mesh kitchen glove  (Kitchen store)
  • Coconut Knife  (Bought mine on Amazon)  ** Not really necessary

Pour out the Coconut water
  • Check out the three 'eyes' on the coconut. It's actually better to think of them whimsically as two eyes and a mouth.
  • The ‘mouth’ will be the most circular and the softest of the three openings. The other two eyes really do start to look like ‘eyes’ with raised ‘eyebrows’. ;p
  • You can just use a screwdriver (larger is probably better) to poke a quick hole in the ‘mouth’ opening. If you’ve properly identified the mouth, it should be no trouble to twist with light pressure until the shell breaks & you are through the meat to the inside.
    • Early on, I’d bought the Coconut Knife to punch a clean hole in the coconuts; it’s not essential, but since I have it, I’m still using it.
  • When you fully punch through the meat, you should hear a rush of air (like opening a can of soda) which indicates the coconut is probably fresh (still sealed from the outside environment).
  • Many people punch a second hole for better pouring, but this will be a lot more work going through one of the eyes compared to the mouth. I just invert the coconut over a glass and do other things for a minute while the water drains.
  • Coconut water is so refreshing! I usually can’t help but drink it up right there. :)  You could also use it in a smoothie or ferment the liquid though for additional nutritional benefits.
I'm pointing to the 'mouth' opening.
** When things go bad: If the water inside is very yellow or has cloudy streaks, it will probably also have an off taste ... sour? (not sweet at all). I usually sigh, toss it out, and try another one. I don't even bother opening coconuts with bad water the rest of the way. I usually end up seeing some sort of mold between the coconut meat and the shell when this happens. The mature coconuts are no where as sweet as young coconuts, but still should taste slightly sweet.  There are varying degrees. If the coconut seems to have gone slightly bad, I haven't risked eating it. I definitely have had good luck keeping coconuts for 3wks to a month in my refrigerator. Whenever the coconuts sit out at above 60-70 deg F, they seem to go bad in just a few days.

Crack open the Coconut  (for responsible people only)
  • Here's where it gets interesting. You could use a hammer, but I use a cleaver. There are some YouTube videos about this step. I watched many before I was brave enough to try. At this point, for me this is the safest, most efficient method:
  • Put on safety glasses. I started doing this after two occasions where a piece of shell flew back and hit me in the cheek. I figured if it can do that, it could just as easily hit my eye, so I feel much more confident wearing some eye protection.
  • Hold the coconut in one hand. I also wear a mesh kitchen safety glove on that hand because the coconut shell can pinch while it's splitting open.
    • Putting the coconut (wrapped in a towel or plastic bags) on the ground outside is another option, but I find it too messy & unstable.
  • Firmly strike the coconut along the rim with the *flat* side of the cleaver (OPPOSITE the sharp edge). Just to be clear, the sharp blade of the cleaver should be no where near your hand or any other body part during this entire process. I would put a smiley face because I never thought I'd write a sentence like that, but this is pretty serious. You could use a little hammer instead, but I don't think it works as well.
  • Try to strike midway between the eyes (top) and the bottom of the coconut. The shell will have a tendency to split in a circle around the circumference.
  • I usually give the coconut about three whacks spaced evenly around the circumference, and the coconut usually splits in two clean hemispheres. (Some days are better than others.)

Extracting the Coconut Meat (also for responsible people only)
  • Continue wearing the safety glove in the hand you will use to hold the coconut shell. I don't use safety glasses for this part, but definitely still wear the glove.
  • I find the Coconut Tool is the most valuable equipment to remove mature coconut meat from the shell. When I was new to coconuts, I first tried using a butter knife, but really don't recommend it. I've spent over 30 minutes trying to get at the meat this way & nearly cut myself several times. In my opinion, the most valuable gadget I recommend for coconuts is by far: the Coconut Tool.
  •  Wedge the curved blade between the meat and shell. Twist as much as you can & work you way around the perimeter increasingly wedging the knife deeper and deeper. Some coconuts are tougher than others to release the meat, but usually in a minute or two, the complete hemisphere pops out (or in a few pieces) using this method.
    • I wear the safety glove mainly because the last piece usually gives way more quickly than expected; there have been a few occasions where I was very glad to be wearing a cut-resistant glove!
  • From here, I cut up the meat into bite sized pieces and use it as a snack or in a smoothie. (The thin husk on the back of the coconut doesn't bother me; I just leave it on. If any heavier pieces of the husk stay stuck on, I just cut them off.)
  • You can even blend up the pieces with water at this point and then strain it through a nut milk bag (or other fine mesh bag) to make coconut milk. The left over fiber (coconut flour) is a fun substitute to use in baking.
In order to save on costs, I buy my coconuts in bulk. Different stores have different bulk discount rates. I think Whole foods is 10% off when buying by the case, but I found a local health food store that is at least 40% off (basically a marginal rate above wholesale).

Coconut Oil
Even though I love coconut oil, and do buy it buy the gallon (saturated fats are highly stable even at room temperature and in cooking) it has gone through a manufacturing process, so I'm once again skeptical about what shortcuts may have been taken. Your best bet is to look for the words 'organic' (legal standards) and 'cold pressed'. (The words 'raw' or 'natural' do not have any legal requirements, so don't convey any useful information.) Higher temperatures in food processing such as with the Expeller Pressed (or worse) increasingly reduce the quality of the food. At extreme temperatures, the food usually smells bad, so is bleached and artificially scented (doesn't sound good to me). I've now started to see Cold Pressed Organic Coconut oil at Costco. I've also bought it in bulk online at ( Coconut oil can be used as a moisturizer for skin, hair, nails & all sorts of uses.

The more I read about coconuts, the more I love them! Full of vitamins & minerals, and has antifungal and antibacterial properties (against the harmful kinds or bacteria, but coconut water/milk can be fermented for beneficial probiotics). For my main food souce, I prefer buying the whole coconuts directly – no stabilizers, no additives, no bleaching, no who knows what. I recommend learning to open the coconuts yourself for the highest possible quality of an amazing and versatile resource. Coconuts for the win!

by Laura A Knauth

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