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Coconuts, the fruit of a palm tree, are native to Malaysia but are now found in parts of Africa, South America, India, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, and other tropical countries.  The largest of the nuts, the average coconut weighs 1 1/2 pounds (680 grams), and one tree will produce thousands of coconuts over its 70 year life span.  

A coconut is round or oval-shaped and has several layers: the outer layer is smooth and brownish-green (removed before shipping to market); next is a hard, hairy, brown fibrous shell that has three "eyes" at one end; inside the shell a thin brown skin encloses a milky white meat; and at the very center of the coconut is a sweet, watery, opaque liquid called coconut water.

Available year-round, but at its peak fall to early winter, the coconut will keep at room temperature for six months.  When choosing a fresh coconut it should be heavy for its size with no mold or mildew.  The three "eyes" should not be damp looking; and when shaken near your ear, you should hear liquid sloshing around inside.  The more liquid you hear sloshing around, the fresher the coconut.  

Cracking the coconut to release the rich, milky-white flesh is done with a metal skewer or screwdriver.  First, pierce two of the eyes and drain off the coconut water (you can drink this).  Using a hammer, tap the coconut about one-third of the way from the eyes.  Keep tapping around the coconut until it breaks open.  Some of the pieces may be large and you may want to break them into smaller, more manageable pieces.  To release the meat from the shell, wedge a screwdriver or dull knife between the shell and meat and pry apart.  The brown skin can be left on or removed with a vegetable peeler or knife.  At this point you can grate, shave, shred, freeze or use to make coconut milk.  One medium coconut will yield 3-4 cups grated.  If storing for later use, you can refrigerate for 4 days or freeze for 6 months in an airtight container. 

Coconut is used to make many products, some of which are; dried coconut, coconut milk and cream, creamed coconut, cream of coconut. 

Dried sweet or unsweetened coconut comes packaged in plastic bags or cans and is available shredded, flaked, desiccated, and sometimes toasted.   (Toasting enhances the buttery richness of the coconut and gives it a caramel color.)  Packaged coconut will usually keep about six months at room temperature but keep it away from moisture.  Always taste before using to make sure it has the wonderful coconut taste, not a dull, dusty flavor. 

The sweetened dried coconut is made by combining coconut with powdered icing and is used in all kinds of baking.  The canned variety is usually moister.

The unsweetened dried coconut is usually found in health food stores and specialty stores.  It is used in both sweet and savory dishes.

The liquid that comes from the fresh coconut is not coconut milk.  To make coconut milk equal parts of freshly grated coconut meat and water are cooked, then strained, and the result is a thick, rich, creamy white liquid with a wonderful sweet coconut flavor.  Coconut cream is a thicker, richer liquid.   Both the milk and cream are unsweetened and usually come in cans.  They are found in grocery stores and Asian markets and are used in both sweet and savory dishes.  

Coconut is high in saturated fat and is a good source of potassium.

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1 cup grated = 75 grams

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