Tropical taste enhances menus year-round
By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
The low coastal regions of Mexico provide a wealth of culinary ingredients, not the least of which is the coconut. One of the most popular flavors in the country, coconut is found in home-cooked dishes and on restaurant menus, although how this fruit arrived here remains a mystery. Despite speculation by historians and botanists, only one thing is certain: that the coconut, because of its light, fibrous husk, was carried to Mexico’s shores on ocean currents. Here, as in other tropical parts of the world, it found a welcoming home and appreciation for its gastronomic uses.
Coconut occupies an important place in Mexican sweets, beverages, ice cream and fruit ices, as well as in savory main and side dishes. Blooming several times a year, the coconut palm provides a year-round supply of fruit, making fresh coconut a staple ingredient in the Pacific and Gulf Coast regions. This abundance means a great deal of the coconut crop is preserved through drying and canning.
Access to tropical fruit is one of the delights of dining in Mexico, and with the array of canned, bottled and dried coconut products available today, this ingredient can be used by chefs, including those in cold climates, year-round. Even in Mexico’s cool, high central plateau region, restaurants have incorporated coconut into an array of entrees, desserts and beverages.
In savory dishes coconut pairs naturally with the fish and seafood caught along the coasts, and is widely used in shrimp dishes, especially as a coating. At La Tequila in Guadalajara, shrimp breaded with shredded dried coconut is placed on a bed of pineapple rice, and bathed in a coconut, pineapple and tequila sauce, while at La Golondrina in Cabo San Lucas, the coconut shrimp is served with mango sauce. Oaxaca’s Los Danzantes presents coconut-crusted shrimp with a sweet and sour sauce, and at Peppers in Banderas Bay, both pineapple and spicy diabla sauces were presented with the coconut shrimp for Puerto Vallarta’s Restaurant Week 2011. Cuernavaca’s Gaia, and Casa Isabel in Puerto Vallarta, combine dried coconut with nuts to make a crunchy coating for shrimp; pecans are used at Gaia and pistachios and almonds at Casa Isabel. And at LaPigua, in Merida, the coconut shrimp is plated inside a half coconut shell.
And coconut breading is not just for shrimp. It is also used as a crust for the fish and chicken strips served at Maya Beach Garden in Playa Maya, where fish steaks, chicken or vegetarian entrees can be ordered with the restaurant’s coconut lime sauce, and seafood stew is served in a coconut shell. At Susanna’s in Rosarito Beach, the coconut sea bass consists of grilled fish with a coconut and butter rum sauce. In other coastal regions, especially Veracruz, coconut milk adds a distinctive flavor to seafood soups and stews containing several kinds of fish, squid and octopus.
A sweet ingredient
Coconut is also combined with other tropical fruit to create dishes such as the coconut and passion fruit soup, garnished with shrimp at Puerto Vallarta’s Ginger Garden. That city’s Hacienda San Angel serves coconut fried bananas, while Ginger Garden pairs crispy coconut with banana mousse, and sweet coconut rice with mango. River Café in Puerto Vallarta serves fruit sushi with coconut mango sauce.
The flavor of coconut lends itself to several other sweets, especially flan. Gaia, as well as Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca and Contramar in Mexico City all serve versions of this dessert. Coconut ice cream is another favorite, served with marinated fresh pineapple, coffee liqueur and shredded fresh coconut at La Habichuela in Cancun, where the toasted coconut torte is served with ice cream and cassis. At Coco’s kitchen in Puerto Vallarta, coconut ice cream is accompanied by caramelized mango, and Archie’s, also in Puerto Vallarta, serves coconut tapioca with mango. At Arricifes restaurant, part of Puerto Vallarta’s Westin Resort, the chocolate napoleon has a coconut filling, and at Casa de Frida, the dessert menu features coconut sorbet with Kahlua.
Other coconut-enhanced Mexican desserts include tres leches cake made with coconut cream, and sweet tamales that are made with fresh coconut along the Veracruz coast and dried coconut in the central highlands. The coconut sweets called cocadas are staples in artisanal candy shops countrywide and at local and regional fairs.
Coconut has also found its way into Mexican beverages, lending a distinctive flavor to the popular rice drink horchata, and is indispensible in such bar standbys as the piña colada and the coco loco. It goes well with papaya, mango and banana in fruit licuados, and the water in fresh, young coconuts is sold right from the shell or bottled and sold in stores.
When buying fresh coconut, listen for the sound of some liquid, since a dry coconut can be past the point of freshness. The shell should be free of cracks and dry on the outside. Fresh coconut needs to be used within a couple of days of purchasing and stored in the refrigerator. The meat can be kept in the freezer up to three months, and dried coconut can be kept unrefrigerated for up to 12 months.
Wide availability and ease of storage make it easy to incorporate dried coconut (sweetened and unsweetened), canned coconut milk and cream, and bottled coconut water into myriad recipes. Rice can be cooked with coconut milk to make a variation on savory black beans and rice, as well as the sweet rice pudding dessert, arroz con leche. Coconut milk and cream can be used in licuados, cake, ice cream and drinks. Try coconut milk or water with mango and pineapple juices to create signature beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Sprinkle sweetened, dried coconut on fruit salads and desserts, and use the unsweetened kind as dried coating for chicken, fish and shrimp. Baking these dishes instead of frying them uses no oil or fat and means that they can be included in a “light” menu section.
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