We started getting a CSA box (I don't even know what CSA stands for, but it's when you pay a set fee for a weekly pile of whatever produce--usually green, leafy stuff--the local farm of your choice has in abundance), and it's my job to pick up the box every Thursday after I get the kids from preschool. My wife chose this particular CSA because it somehow benefits the Somali refugee community that comprises a significant portion of her patient population. I'm not clear exactly what the connection is. All I know is that the pickup location is in a public service-ish office building that shares a parking lot with a small strip mall that is mostly occupied by Vietnamese businesses.
The first time we went there (after being led on a merry goose chase by Google Maps) we pulled into the strip mall, and the girls started shouting, "The coconut store! The coconut store!" They claimed that they had been there before, although I knew that I had not. We've been to other Vietnamese strip malls and markets, where we've bought plenty of young coconuts for poking holes in and drinking the water out of, but this one was new to me. I thought maybe their mom had taken them there for some reason. (It turned out that they had never been there before. I don't know how they associated this place with coconuts, other than recognizing the writing on the sign as Vietnamese?)
The girls nagged me to buy some coconuts when we did our first CSA mission, but I told them we didn't have time. On the second trip though, I succumbed. We went into the market where they fingered the jackfruit and gawked at the icy mountain of dead catfish before we found their meager supply of coconuts. I tried to explain to the kids that they were the wrong kind of coconut, and that the water wouldn't be good for drinking.
|Young coconuts. These are the kind that are good for drinking|
|The old hairy ones are not typically used as beverages|
The girls would not be dissuaded though, so I forked over $1.79 apiece for some hairy old coconuts. I didn't know what I would do with them, but I didn't want the kids to melt down in the tripe aisle.
The coconuts sat in the fridge for over a week, just taking up space. My wife, who didn't understand why I had gotten the wrong kind of coconuts, kept dropping hints about how she would really like them to be anywhere but the fridge. It was a Saturday, and we didn't have anything planned, so I decided to try to deal with the cumbersome things.
When I was ten years old, and my family lived in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., we used to drive out to somewhere deep in the bowels of Maryland, just to go to our favorite Polynesian restaurant. (This was thirty-some years ago, when Northern VA was nothing like the ethnic melting pot it is now.) We sat in big rattan chairs, and I would always order the coconut milk. It was like a creamy, coconut-flavored slurpee, with a slice of pineapple wedged on the rim, and a maraschino cherry floating on the icy top. It was the greatest beverage I had ever tasted.
While tagging along on a grocery shopping trip with my mom, I saw a bin full of coconuts, and convinced her to buy one, so that I could enjoy the sweet nectar at home. It was the old, hairy variety, familiar to us from photos in National Geographic and the Jungle Book movie. None of us knew what to do with it, so my parents gave me a hammer and a handsaw, and turned me loose on it. After an hour of beating, sawing, and smashing the poor thing against the brick patio, I finally got through the shell. I pried it open, and what remained of the liquid inside looked nothing like the delicious blended beverage I had hoped for. There was maybe half a cup of bitter, woody murk inside, and I spat it out immediately. I tried to salvage the meat by chiseling it out with a screwdriver, but it too was cardboard-y and bland, and flecked with bits of shell and hair from my sloppy disembowling. The whole mess went into the garbage.
Would that there had been an internet back then. After trying and failing to use the technique I usually employ to extract the liquid from younger, softer coconuts (i.e. boring holes in them with a plastic chopstick driven by whatever heavy object is handy that approximates a hammer), I turned to the Google to help me access the juice from the old bastards my daughters had made me buy, if only to prove to them that said juice was disgusting, and finally be able to toss the coconuts.
I found one video, which explained that the best way to open a coconut is to bake it at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until the shell starts cracking. But first, drain the water out. The way to do that is to use a sharp object--they suggest a meat thermometer, which is what I used--to poke a hole through one of the "eyes." There are three little depressions on the smaller end of the coconut, called eyes, and one of them is always soft, whereas the other two are as hard as the rest of the shell. WHO KNEW?!
I drained the water, and--what do you know--it was pretty okay tasting. Not as good as the young coconuts, but not bad. The girls guzzled it down.
Then I busted open the shell after baking it for about 20 minutes, just like the video showed, and it worked fine. (I've never seen this, but my wife says her mom opens them up in like two seconds with the blunt edge of a huge meat cleaver--no heat or hammers necessary.)
|The remains. Don't ask about the bird.|
So, in for a penny, in for a pound, I went ahead and scooped out the meat, and used a vegetable peeler to get the inner skin off of it. Then I had a few bites and...it was super bland and not worth the chewing.
Of course, there were more YouTube videos about coconuts. Specifically, how to get the "milk" out of the nut meat. Simple, really: just break it up into little pieces, and run it through the blender, pouring boiling water into it until it looks kind of like mashed potatoes. Then put the blazing hot mash (I suppose one could wait for it to cool if one weren't already running late for an afternoon engagement, not having realized that one would be making coconut milk all day) into a cheesecloth and squeeze all the liquid into a bowl.
(This isn't the video I used--I couldn't find it again--but it's the same idea, and this nice lady says coconut milk is good for kids, so it makes me feel less stupid about all the time I spent on this)
|Some of my molten flesh may have mingled with the milk|
|They were still laughing at my burning-hands antics|
So there I was, with a big mixing bowl full of coconut milk. It didn't taste like much in that form either: but I wasn't going to give up on it at that point, having invested hours in the project already.
The first thing I did was go back to the blender. I threw in some coconut milk, ice, simple syrup, a little condensed milk for good measure, and a dash of vanilla. I'll be damned if it didn't taste pretty much exactly like the coconut slurpee of my childhood! Yum.
|We didn't have any maraschino cherries|
Then my wife busted out the popsicle molds, and we filled them with coconut milk, also with simple syrup and vanilla in them. The kids had grown pretty bored with the coconut project by then.
|Whatever. Homemade popsicles.|
But they changed their tune the next day when we busted out the frozen ones!
So, I will probably never do that again. But it was kind of fun-ish, and the kids liked it, and if we're ever shipwrecked and find ourselves on a deserted island that has a Vitamix and a freezer and an oven, I wouldn't completely rule it out.