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    In the frying pan, nearly ready to serve. I made this one with carrots, curry spices, chile-garlic paste, allspice and cinnamon, and a little vinegar and lemon for acidity.

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Coconut, minus the hype

dried coconut shreds

Palm and coconut oils have made a huge comeback in the last few years. Both are very high in saturated fats, which promote high blood cholesterol and heart disease, but the vegan community has embraced them as “natural” and they’re turning up in all kinds of baked goods and sweets these days at Whole Foods. Which also sells big mayo jars full of coconut butter. Looks like Crisco, scoops like Crisco, costs 10 times as much.

A lot of the newer vegan recipes and packaged foods are direct mimics of things that used to include lard, beef tallow and suet at the lower end of the classiness scale, or butter at the high end. My local Whole Foods’ pastry case features a lot of croissant and baklava variations these days, all now made with palm oil, as are many of the muffins. Starbucks’ “old-fashioned kettle” doughnuts feature palm oil in two places, both the dough and the icing.

Why are these fats getting so popular? Why all the wishful thinking that a plant source automatically makes them healthy to eat in quantity? Why are all the nutrition advice columnists in the major newspapers and health magazines suddenly “holistic coaches” who graduated college with psych majors and the like rather than board-licensed nutritionists and registered dieticians?

The truth of the matter is that your body doesn’t care so much whether a saturated fat came from lard, a coconut, or a chemical vat–regardless of the source, the fat molecules are shaped the same and your digestive and metabolic enzymes process them all the same way.

Palm and coconut oil? The hip vegan crowd, who consider themselves really indie, would be surprised to learn how thoroughly they’ve been manipulated by a very big industry. In the past 10 years, these oils have suddenly ramped up production wherever palm trees can be grown, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where producers started by stripping the jungles to plant a single crop (though some of the main palm oil traders, like Lever–yes, the soap manufacturer–have made statements that they’re working to reverse some of the damage and buy only from those who “plant sustainably”). The other main centers of palm and coconut oil growers are Africa, India and Latin America.

Palm and coconut oils have taken off not because they’re vegan (outside of India, there just aren’t enough to support the industry boom) but because they’re such a cheap source of fat. Well, cheap everywhere but the Whole Foods shelves. They are indeed useful to the processed baked-goods industry for lending that heavy grease “satisfaction” factor to things that used to be made with butter, suet or lard. And they’re much less heavily regulated in the US by the agricultural inspectors because they don’t trigger all those livestock rules.

But should you be eating them? Buying jars of coco butter for your home cooking? Something tells me you’d be better off eating less of anything that requires cooking in heavy fats as opposed to regular polyunsaturated vegetable oil. And cutting down on all fats unless you’ve actually been diagnosed by an MD, not a holistic coach, as underweight.

Because even the unsaturated fats have a lot of calories. Rip Esselstyn’s “Fire Engine 2 Diet” specifically cut out all oils because the people he was training to eat better really needed to lose weight, and the bottom line is that the 120 calories in a tablespoon of ordinary unsaturated vegetable oil are still extras. There’s no real way around that. Not even if you’re vegan.

And wasn’t the point of nonstick pans supposed to be so you could cut down on cooking fats? (ok, it was really so the pans would be easier to wash, but why not take advantage while you’re at it?)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever use coconut itself in cooking–I’ve been a Mounds fan from way back, and please just don’t ask about those poufy huge coconut-sprinked, bright pink marshmallow things we used to clamor for as kids (“Snowballs”? I think it was a half-dome of marshmallow that sat on a cookie…almost as bad as Moon Pies.) These days I try to eat it sparingly, because it’s still fatty, and because most of my coconut exposure now takes place in the form of macaroons at Passover, when I’m already feeling like if I see another can or box of something packaged I’ll pass out.

But seriously–and more sophisticatedly–coconut itself is a worthwhile cooking ingredient in some savory dishes, and it has a subtle, penetrating flavor that means you don’t have to use a ton. You can also find good steam-defatted versions of shredded coconut that have about half the fat of regular, and look for partially decreamed canned coconut milk as well (I think Trader Joe’s sells it, maybe Whole Foods as well). Unfortunately, half the fat for coconut is still pretty fatty, but it’s an improvement.

Even a spoonful of unsweetened shreds can give a curry or aviyal (i.e., coconut-based “dry curry” class of dishes) a satisfying suggestion of richness without adding loads of fat. Maybe a gram or two per serving, and it can help even out jagged edges in the spicing.

To get the most flavor out of a small amount of coconut, I do one of two things. In the aviyal of cowpeas below, I toast a spoonful of dried shreds with the spices and onion in a little olive oil to start the curry. Toasting briefly develops the flavor a bit and brings it to the surface, where the  chopped tomatoes, added next, can dissolve and spread the flavor as they release their juices and cook down.

Bhuna (frying the onion and spices) to start the cowpea avial

The other way to get more out of dried shreds is to reconstitute the shreds in a cup of skim milk or water in the microwave and add that to a recipe. Yes, it will be a different dish than something made with a cup or more of regular coconut milk, and often enough that’s okay–the idea here is to add an undercurrent of coconut flavor.

Reconstitute coconut shreds in milk by microwaving a minute or two

Reconstitute coconut shreds in milk by microwaving a minute or two until the mixture thickens

I tried it last week in hopes of producing a low-carb and low-fat coconut ice cream or sorbet using silken tofu, but I’m only partly satisfied with the flavor and texture so far; it’s not terrible but I’m not yet ready to say it’s good enough to serve anyone but myself.

So here’s the aviyal, anyway–this one came out surprisingly well. The motivation? I needed something that would work with a very unusual legume. Which seems miles away from the topic of coconut, I know.

Most of the time I think of beans and lentils as basically interchangeable, but this time I was wrong. Really wrong. I’d never used cowpeas before, but when I ran into them at the Latino supermarket I thought I had to try them. Raghavan Iyer has some recipes for them in his 660 Curries, which I’ve been dipping into, and according to him, cowpeas are basically a reddish brown version of blackeyed peas. And he says that like lentils, they don’t require a long presoak before cooking. Sounded like an interesting change from black beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Cooked cowpeas

However, when I cooked up the bag of cowpeas in the microwave, I was struck by their unusual smoky, bitter smell and taste. And by smoky I mean “ashtray”, not “hickory and mesquite”. I poured off the first water and reheated them in fresh–still there. The taste was definitely part of the cowpeas and not something wrong. Substantial, even meaty–but pretty offputting. What would they really go with? I needed something to do that would tone down or at least integrate the smoky bitterness well, and I didn’t think my usual red lentil dal recipe was going to do it–it’s too acidic, too light, and has too much coriander seed, which I think of as citrusy or almost vinegary-sweet, and I thought it would just clash.

So I started thinking about bitter, and somehow the new bag of steam-defatted coconut shreds I had in the freezer came to mind–maybe they’d mellow it out a little. Cardamom, too, for the way it goes with (and the black cardamom pods actually provide) smokiness in saag paneer. And nigella seed (kalonji or black caraway) instead of cilantro.

So I started the curry base with curry powder, a little extra cumin, a good chunk of z’khug for heat, and a chopped red onion the way I usually do, and sprinkled on a little coconut. I let it cook down a while, then added some chopped tomatoes, ginger and a good hit of garlic, plus the nigella seeds. I cooked that down a while, drizzling it once in a while with water to keep it from scorching. Then I added a couple of cups of the cooked cowpeas and some of the liquid.

Bleagh. The cowpea flavor was still prominent and needed something to pick it up–aromatic spice?–oh. I’d forgotten to add the cardamom. But the only cardamom I had at the moment was ground in with some cloves for chai. A pinch of it went into the mix–bitter! spicy! weird!–almost, though. It almost went together, but it was still kind of rough. Tone it down with spinach? Another sprinkling of coconut? A squeeze of lemon juice after all? Pinch of salt?–no, see if there’s anything else to do first.

By now I was just trying to balance things out–the kitchen sink approach to cooking, no doubt about it.

I’m sure my method bears no resemblance to the right way of deciding what to do with Indian cooking ingredients, particularly since the classes of flavors (warming, cooling, etc.) are balanced according to religious discipline in a lot of cases. The best I could do was just aim in the general direction of the dal makhani and saag paneer from a favorite restaurant.

I realized I’d forgotten to add the ginger earlier in the process and wondered if it would just make the loud clove taint more miserable. What the heck–I had nothing left to lose and grated some into the pan. Surprisingly, it worked. The flavor calmed down immediately and seemed closer to something authentic. Why? Maybe the same reason pickled ginger goes with wasabi in sushi? Odd.

I was almost there, but the cowpeas were still kind of bitter and smoky and stuck out the wrong way in the sauce. Finally, it hit me–dal makhani features ghee, or clarified butter, which I didn’t really want to add, but it’s that rich dairy undertone that makes it work.

Adding a bit of feta to cowpea curry

Cheese, maybe? Paneer? Absent. But I did have a small chunk of Israeli feta in the fridge–sheep’s milk feta at that. I crumbled an ounce or so into the pan and started stirring. Despite the presence of lemon juice, it melted right in without curdling and from the smell and a small taste, I suddenly knew I had arrived. The feta didn’t mask anything, it just brought everything together, including the coconut. It added a little richness and a little salt (for 5-6 half-cup servings, maybe 8 grams of fat and 400-500 mg of sodium total) and made the cowpeas taste like they actually belonged there.

We’ve been eating them happily all week.

Aviyal or “Dry Curry” of Cowpeas with Shredded Coconut

Makes about 6-8 servings from a half-pound of dried cowpeas; a whole 1-lb. bag makes two batches. Obviously, you should smell and taste as you go to see if you need to adjust the spices.

  • olive or vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 medium-large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1-2 T curry powder
  • 1/2 t. cumin
  • 1-2 T. dried shredded unsweetened coconut, preferably steam-defatted
  • 1″ chunk or 1 t. z’khug (cilantro/garlic/chile paste) or hot pepper flakes to taste; WARNING-1 t is pretty hot
  • 1-2 large cloves garlic, mashed/minced/grated
  • 1″ piece of ginger, grated
  • squeeze or two of lemon juice, to taste
  • 1/2 t. nigella (kalonji, black caraway) seed
  • pinch of cardamom or seeds from 7 pods
  • pinch of ground cloves
  • 3-4 c. cooked cowpeas
  • 1 c. frozen chopped spinach, or a big handful of fresh leaves
  • 2 oz. feta (preferably Israeli sheep feta, like Pastures of Eden), crumbled

Heat 1-2 tablespoons of oil in a wide frying pan (nonstick if possible) and toss in the curry powder, cumin and z’khug or hot pepper flakes with the dried coconut shreds. Toast 30 s. or so, and add the chopped onion. Drizzle a little water over the mixture every so often and let it cook down until the onion is light brown, about 15-20 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, the garlic and ginger, and sprinkle on the nigella seed and clove and cardamom. Let these cook down with the onion until the tomato skins start separating from the flesh, another 5 or so minutes. Squeeze on the lemon juice, add the cowpeas and some of their liquid, enough to be a little soupy. Cook down a bit further, add the spinach and taste. Add maybe another spoonful of coconut shreds and the feta, and stir in until the chunks of feta melt completely. Taste for seasonings (you might want more lemon or salt) and serve over rice or butternut squash.

2 Responses

  1. The clear-cutting of forests to make more palm oil farms is one of the greatest threats to the small remaining populations of orangutans, too. Do we want to live in a world where we’re fat and there aren’t any orangutans? I think not.

    • Don’t we already, mostly? Orangutans (at least those at the LA Zoo) are particularly valuable in that they show people new and creative uses for raw cabbage (red and green)–sometimes to eat, sometimes to fashion into hats. I always thought that would be more appealing to kids and their style-conscious parental units out here, but with all the coco butter jars in the stores and Lap-Band ads on the sides of every city bus (when there isn’t some ad for an ambulance chaser), what need have they for vegetables? It’s an uphill battle.

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