The coconut plant, Cocos nucifera, is a tree in the palm family. There are many varieties within the species. Dwarf varieties grow to about 14 feet and flower in three years after planting. Tall varieties grow to 70 or 80 feet and flower in about eight years. They have a long productive life and require little care once established.
Coconut palms have been called the "Tree of Life" in Pacific islands because all parts of the plant are useful in many daily activities. In addition to the food uses of the coconut meat, it is also pressed for oil to use on the body and to make soaps. The hard shell around the meat can be used as a cup, or polished and carved into buttons, combs and other articles. The husks of the nut are used for scrubbing and the fibers woven into rope. Coconut leaves are woven into baskets, hats and a variety of useful items. The midribs of the leaves are stripped out and bundled to form a broom. The wood of the coconut tree trunk is very hard and can be cut for lumber or paneling.
The tree bears coconuts all year around. It takes about a year after flowering for nuts to mature and fall to the ground. Green drinking nuts are picked at about seven months old, just before the meat inside begins to harden.
The "water" inside of a fresh unripe coconut is a refreshing and healthy drink. It can be a sweet and flavorful substitute for commercial soft drinks. In emergencies doctors have even used it as an intraveneuos solution for replacing body fluids and minerals.
As this cookbook demonstrates, coconut cream is a part of many Pacific island recipes. It is produced by squeezing the grated coconut meat mixed with water. As a standard measure, two grated coconuts and one cup of water will yield one cup of coconut cream. A thinner product, coconut milk, is made by the same process using two cups of water.
The "Estimated Nutritional Values" tables in this section show that use of coconut cream and coconut milk in recipes is a concern for maintaining a healthy diet. Both of these foods are extremely high in saturated fat. In most recipes using these foods, a note has been added that substituting up to half of the coconut cream with cow's milk will reduce the saturated fat. Canned condensed milk is thicker, like coconut cream. An extract of coconut can be added for flavoring.
It is understood that Pacific islanders have used coconut cream as an important part of their diet for a very long time. However, changes have occurred in many people's lifestyles in the region. Work has become more sedentary and other forms of exercise may have decreased. The increased use of prepared foods in the diet has also introduced additional sources of fat and saturated fat. The issue is complex with many variables to consider. Yet, the current nutritional recommendations which limit fat and saturated fat in the diet would suggest that the use of coconut cream in recipes should be limited to a few occasions and in small quantities.
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