Pot of Gold

Tell the truth: How many times have you purchased a new product based largely on the container it came in? There’s no judgement here since it’s a marketing ploy I’ve fallen prey to more often than any reasonable shopper should, and I have shelves full of various empty jars to prove it. Insidious yet obviously effective, product packaging is a considerable factor for success in businesses both big and small. It conveys quality, makes a brand memorable, bolsters its presence on the shelf by setting it apart from the pack. For many years, that’s precisely why I knew about Petit Pot, enviously eyeing those shapely glass bottles stacked high in refrigerated cases. I know, you should never judge a book by its cover, but I had nothing else to go on since all of the luxuriously decadent contents were all dairy-based. Until now.

In a radical departure from the original line of French pot de creme offerings, the brand new Riz au Lait Coco is their very first non-dairy and fully vegan treat on offer.

Loosely set, erring much more on the side of a lightly thickened sauce than rich custard, this very quality lends it a deceptively light texture on the palate. For such a heavy, typically fatty main ingredient, this is both a marvel and a rarity. Tender grains of rice swim in a pool of coconut milk, accompanied only by a hint of cane sugar and salt. Dainty, unexpectedly delicate, the thinner texture creates a delightfully refreshing overall experience.

Coconut-forward but not aggressively so, each spoonful bears a lightly toasted tropical flavor but keeps things very simple. Perfectly fitting the definition of comfort food, there are no challenging flavors or surprises concealed in these attractive little containers. What you see is what you get, delivering on the high quality such packaging has always conveyed. Serve them absolutely chilled, straight out of the fridge and unadorned, for an ideal summer snack or dessert.

Locally made in San Francisco and sadly limited in availability nationwide, I’d like to think that this is just the start for a blossoming young company. After all, there’s clearly ample demand for more non-dairy desserts; the proof is in the pudding.

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Mac Daddy

Passover has mercifully passed on by without incident, the week without leavened bread already a distant memory. Jumping right back into the typical glutenous routine as quickly as pizza crust can crisp and brown back to life, the cupboards miraculously refill with wheated treats, and boards of matzo just as suddenly disappear. Still, its influence lingers, the drive to create kosher eats still strong and the inspiration of past successes just as compelling.

One of my strongest food associations with the holiday, right after matzo ball soup, of course, is coconut macaroons. Sad to say, it’s a regrettable negative mental link, once correlated to the stale, mummified nuggets found at the bottom of an ancient tin can, likely the very same guest invited to a decade of celebrations. Sinewy, overly sweetened strings of processed coconut were woven throughout, like sugary balls of yarn, obliterating any genuine flavor, natural or otherwise.

It needn’t be this way. Coconut macaroons are effortless to make from scratch, suitable for all diets and palates, but many prepared options exist that can deftly carry the torch, too. Coco-Roons first hit the market years ago with a modest selection of standard flavors. Since then, the family has expanded to include more innovative offerings.

Chocolate and vanilla, the mandatory classics, are presented with a bit more flare as Brownie and Vanilla Maple. While such fanciful monikers may be a bit more hype than truth, there’s no arguing that these macaroons are far and away a huge upgrade over the sad leaden lumps that haunt my childhood memories. Vanilla Maple tastes surprisingly more of rum than maple; subtle, unexpected alcoholic notes play among the tropical coconut flavor, surprising but not unwelcome. Brownie offers adds a nicely rounded, robust cocoa taste to the mix, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s equivalent to a decadent fudgy square. For some slightly more avant-garde options, Salted Caramel is a standout, dazzling with warm, toasted notes, heightened by that extra bit of seasoning. Lemon Pie does indeed bear an impressively creamy, custard-like lemon flavor; bright but not tangy, it falls firmly into the sweet camp, rather than sour.

More importantly than the individual flavors though, each tiny morsel is moist, soft, and sweet. Very fresh, full coconut flavor, they employ short strands of flaked coconut to create a more pleasing texture, while still remaining relatively faithful to the original script. Traditionalists would undoubtedly enjoy the modern upgrade, and the fact that they happen to be gluten-free, vegan, and raw are just added bonuses.

Layered in Sweet History

Towering stacks of gossamer-thin pastry, impossibly crisp and glistening with sticky syrup gleam from within bakery cases across the globe. Though typically full to bursting with crisp walnuts and warm spices, baklava is no stranger to alternative approaches. Considering the fact that it’s been at the mercy of creative bakers for centuries, this well-loved treat has managed to maintain its core identity far better than most, thanks in no small part to its sheer simplicity.

All you need is phyllo dough and a bit of patience to bring any dessert-lover to their knees. Swapping in pistachios for the filling is my favorite twist, inspired by my dad’s equal distaste for walnuts and love for pistachios, but this is a new rendition that he can endorse as well. Toasted coconut adds tropical flare without venturing too far into the dangerous waters of “fusion” cuisine. Sweet cinnamon and floral syrup closely reminiscent of honey bring familiar flavors back into the fold, sure to satisfy traditionalist and more adventurous eaters alike.

Coconut Baklava

Syrup:

1 Cup Water
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Teaspoon Orange Blossom Water
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Filling:

4 Cups Shredded, Unsweetened Coconut, Toasted
3/4 Cup Raw Cashew Pieces, Roughly Chopped
1/2 Cup Coconut Sugar or Turbinado Sugar
1 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

For Assembly:

1 (1-Pound) Box Frozen Phyllo Dough, Thawed
1/2 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted

Make sure that your phyllo dough is completely before beginning. Keep it covered with a lightly moistened kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out.

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and lightly grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Prepare the syrup first so it has time to cool. This can also be made well in advance, as it will keep almost indefinitely in an air-tight container. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook just until the sugar has fully dissolved; set aside.

Moving on to the filling, briefly pulse the coconut and cashews in your blender or food processor to achieve a coarse grind while still allowing the mixture to remain very rough and chunky. Transfer to a large bowl and mix with the sugar, cinnamon, and salt.

Cut (or tear) the phyllo so that it will fit into the bottom of your prepared baking pan. It is okay if the pieces overlap a little. Begin by laying down one sheet and brushing the pastry with melted coconut oil. Add another sheet of phyllo once the first is lightly but thoroughly coated. Brush the second sheet with coconut oil. Repeat these steps up to 4 times to create a phyllo layer; the exact number is up to you. After applying the coconut oil to the last sheet in your first phyllo layer, sprinkle it evenly with the nut mixture. Repeat the entire process to create a second layer of phyllo, followed by another layer of the nuts. Continue this pattern until you run out of the dry ingredients, ending with layers of pastry on top.

Before placing the baklava in the oven, pre-cut the little triangles, or, if you are not feeling so handy with a knife, little squares are just fine. Bake for 70 to 80 minutes, until golden brown and slightly crispy-looking, but watch to make sure that the edges do not burn. Cover the pan with foil to prevent overcooking, if needed.

Pour the warm syrup all over over the baked pastry. It may look excessive, but it will all soak in over time. Allow the baklava to cool for at least an hour or two before slicing and serving.

Makes 24 Triangles

Printable Recipe

Coconuts Get Cultured

“Plain” is almost never a compliment, nor a desirable description. The word evokes a certain homeliness, blandness, a lack of zeal or zest. Even worse than “basic,” which suggests a comforting familiarity, there’s little to say in defense of plainness.

Applied to yogurt, however, “plain” is the holy grail, the standard by which all cultured non-dairy products are to be held, and so few make the cut. Rare is the company that will even venture to offer such a demanding flavor in the first place. Without added fruits or flavors for embellishment, there’s nowhere to hide a lackluster base, marred with unpleasant sour notes or strange aftertastes. What’s even more elusive is a blank slate without sweeteners, making savory applications all but impossible. Despite the abundance of new vegan options on the market now, you still have to plan on making your own or finding a suitable substitution. If you happen to live in the bay area, however, you now have another option: Yoconut.

Yoconut is a small but rapidly growing startup created by self-described foodie Bonnie Lau. If you voted in the recent Veggie Awards, you may have noticed this brand on the ballot, right alongside industry giants like Silk and So Delicious. That alone should say volumes about the product- Not yet distributed in mainstream markets, but already competing with the big shots. What sets Yoconut apart is its focus on quality, which is immediately apparent from a cursory glance at the label. No weird gums, no preservatives, no sugar at all; just smooth and creamy coconut, plain and simple. The Original is a cook’s dream, able to blend seamlessly with dips and dressings of all stripes, finally giving “plain” a good name.

Granted, what most eaters will want to know about are the flavored varieties, and I’ll have you know that they’re held to those very same high standards. Vanilla simply shimmers with seeds from the whole bean, without any syrup sweetness to diminish from its glory. Chocolate is admittedly still under development, but the latest rendition I sampled was a revelation; nothing like the pudding I had come to expect from such a title, but a legitimate cocoa-tinted cultured snack. Nothing else on the market comes close to this sort of highly sophisticated approach, and I for one hope the final formula doesn’t stray too far from this exquisite initial taste.

Right now your best bet for scoring a few of these precious containers is directly from Bonnie herself, at the Fort Mason Farmers Market held every Sunday from 9:30am to 1:30pm. Keep a close eye on local grocery store shelves though, because I have a feeling it won’t be long before this small business strikes out in a big way.

A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

In one of many ill-conceived business ideas, I briefly considered setting up shop selling coconut shell bowls. The obsession was short but intense, yielding many colorful vessels for my own enjoyment, but few to share with the general public. Alas, of all those tropical fruits cracked open and eviscerated, not a single one actually turned a profit. Anyone with an ounce of money sense could have seen that coming, considering the sheer amount of time and labor necessary for each individual piece. It turns out that even the most beautiful coconut shell really isn’t worth more than $3 an hour, if you’re being particularly generous.

The venture wasn’t a total loss though. Processing through so many coconuts yielded tons of fresh coconut water, coconut shreds, coconut milk, coconut butter, and coconut pulp to enjoy. The last step in that journey could be considered the least celebrated, but to me, the most intriguing. What remained after straining homemade coconut milk was not quite fine enough to call flour, but certainly not refined enough to call flakes. It fell firmly between the two categories; rough around the edges but quite sweet and charming once you got to know it.

Finding a way to eat through that volume of pulpy excess was ultimately a more rewarding challenge than the monotonous task of sanding down the sharp edges and fine lines of a coconut shell. Taking inspiration from their Asian origins, Thai spices join the mix to form tender patties, fashioned into bite-sized sliders perfect for celebrating the tail end of summer. They aren’t burgers by any stretch of the imagination and they don’t try to be. I wanted to celebrate the coconut in all its natural glory, succulent and tender, cradled between two buns- Mock meats need not apply.

I daresay that this unconventional take on the typical picnic fare would be perfect to liven up any Labor Day festivities you may have planned. Even if your plans for the three day weekend consist of little more than binge-watching Netflix and pulling your long sleeve shirts out of storage, there’s no reason why these flavorful sliders can’t be on the menu. These versatile patties are just the start of the fun, inviting a wide range of fully customization toppings to suit even the most exotic cravings. I’ve listed some of my favorites below to get you started.

In case you don’t just happen to have a couple of fresh coconuts on hand to turn into pulp, you can absolutely process plain old unsweetened shredded coconut into a coarse meal instead.

Thai Coconut Sliders

Thai-Spiced Coconut Patties:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1/2 Cup Diced Shallot
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons Red Curry Paste
1 Tablespoon Ketchup
1 Tablespoon Vegan Fish Sauce or Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1 Cup Dry Coconut Pulp or Meal
1 Cup Cooked Jasmine Rice
2 Tablespoons Tapioca Flour
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

To Serve:

Mini Slider Buns
Sliced Cucumbers
Sliced Avocado
Fresh Cilantro or Thai Basil

Additional Topping Suggestions:

Peanut Sauce
Mango Relish or Chutney
Coconut Aioli

To prepare the patties, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium pan and add the shallots and garlic. Saute until softened and aromatic. Stir in the curry paste, cooking it for 2 – 3 minutes to bring out the full flavors of the spices. Add the ketchup, “fish” sauce, and lime juice and cook for another 3 minutes, allowing the ingredients to meld.

Transfer the aromatics to a large bowl along with the coconut pulp, cooked rice, and tapioca flour. Use a wide spatula to mix everything together. It’s a very thick mixture so you may just want to get in there with your hands to speed up the process. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Use an ice cream scoop to portion out the most consistent slider sizes, or just aim for a scant 1/4 per patty. Roll them between lightly moistened hands and press them down gently to shape.

Heat a wide skillet over medium heat and coat the bottom with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Cook 2 – 3 sliders at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan. Allow 5 – 8 minutes per side, until golden brown, flipping as needed.

Serve on mini slider buns with as many toppings as your heart desires.

Makes 7 – 8 Sliders.

Printable Recipe

Shell Shocked

Whole coconuts are a luxurious culinary delight as much as they are potentially lethal weapons. Yes, you read that correctly. The humble brown-husked coconut, now fully immersed in popular culture and ubiquitous in even the most basic mainstream grocery stores, is ripe with potential… To maim or seriously injure the irreverent home cook. You’ve survived the harvest, cleared from the danger of falling coconuts that sometimes fall like bombs on the heads of unsuspecting beach-goers, but freed from the tree, that rock hard husk takes on an all new means of attack. If I were to add up all the cuts, gashes, bruises, and scrapes I’ve personally accumulated over the years of failed attempts to break into the delicious white flesh within, let’s just say it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.

In spite of it all, I keep on coming back for round after round of punishment. It was only after a sleepless night of internet searches that I thought to investigate a better way to get my coconut meat and eat it, too. Turns out, there is a trick to it. Just whack the damn thing. Seriously.

Put away the steel spikes, hammers, rubber mallets, machetes, and any other heavy artillery you thought was needed to break into those spherical fortresses. Just hit the coconut with the blunt side of a heavy knife a few times, all around the center, until it cracks cleanly into two perfect, equal halves. Catch the water in the bowl underneath and have yourself a victory toast.

With this radical new approach, I have all the coconut I can possibly eat. After drinking the water and using the meat to make coconut butter and coconut flour, I was left with the empty shells.

Nothing goes to waste around here, though, so they too became the focus of my restless mind. For the avid crafter and food photographer, what could be better than a brand new set of beautiful, organic bowls? The most difficult part of the project is sanding away the rough hairs on the outside. Once clean and fairly smooth, even out the edge just so that it’s not sharp, but allow some of the character of the coconut to remain. Strive for wabi-sabi aesthetics, not perfection.

You could stop right there and seal the deal with a food-safe enamel, or go over it first with a bold splash of colored paint. I went with a bit of glitz and glamor for this set, spraying the interior with gold before touching up the exterior with a high-contrast black matte. I know there will be many more where these came from, so the opportunities to unleash new color combinations will be endless!