How can I make a coconut milk-based sauce more healthy?
August 20, 2007 2:18 PM   Subscribe

How can I make a coconut milk-based sauce more healthy but still keep it creamy? I have some ideas and I'd like your suggestions.

I'm kind of making a Panang-style tofu dish but it's not very authentic. That's ok, though. I'm going to serve it over quinoa instead of rice.

So here's the dilemma. I need to simmer the tofu cubes and veggies in a sauce that's normally made of coconut milk, a bit of fish sauce, and yellow curry paste. I love the creaminess of the sauce that the coconut milk makes, but I really want to cut down on the calories and fat because coconut milk is basically as unhealthy as heavy whipping cream. I'm okay with using some coconut milk, but I don't want to use too much. Maybe 25-50% of the normal amount.

Here are my ideas, though I don't know whether they'll will work or taste good. These came straight from my imagination. With all of them, I will use some coconut milk but not much.

1. Add some nonfat milk and a bit of roux (made of flour and olive oil) to thicken. Problem: If I simmer the sauce that has milk, will the milk get burned, will the milk and coconut cream separate?

2. I bought some soft tofu and the package says it's good for salad dressings. I assume that means I can put it in the blender and it will turn into a creamy sauce (?). Can I use that instead of coconut milk? I have never used soft tofu before. Can I use it as a substitute for a portion of the coconut milk? Will it taste too funny? Will it separate or get weird when it simmers/boils?

3. Use half water and half coconut milk and throw in some corn starch to thicken.

I realize I will have to sacrifice some of the flavor and texture that I would otherwise get with all the coconut milk, but I want it to still be yummy.

Got any other ideas?
posted by HotPatatta to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think they sell light coconut that too obvious? Otherwise I think I would just cut it with water.
posted by bluebird at 2:29 PM on August 20, 2007

You can try a few things -

- add a bit of coconut extract to your curry, and finish off the dish with low fat Greek yogurt for extra creaminess after you've removed it from the heat. I use Total 2% Greek yogurt instead of milk and cream for everything except my coffee and cereal, really.

- The roux idea isn't bad at all. What I would do instead of mixing it with milk to begin with is make the roux separately at the very beginning, cooking it down until it's golden brown. Then add veggies et al, as usual, and omit the milk altogether, or add yogurt instead after you've removed the curry from the heat.

- reduce your coconut milk, as you suggested, but instead of water use chicken or vegetable broth.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 2:34 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: I tried light coconut milk and it's basically half water and half coconut milk. I just don't know if it would separate when I simmer it. It isn't as creamy, either. The lack of creaminess is the problem.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:35 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: For those who don't know, coconut milk is the same as regular heavy cream, as far as I can tell. It doesn't taste like coconut. So if someone has experience with heavy cream but no experience with coconut milk, that's ok. Just tell me what you would do with the heavy cream.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:42 PM on August 20, 2007

I've been using light coconut milk, which shouldn't separate (it doesn't for me), and Silk Enhanced soy milk, which has flax seed oil. It's thicker than normal soy milk and adds a nice texture to sauces.
posted by lunalaguna at 2:42 PM on August 20, 2007

We always use the light stuff for cooking. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything.
posted by adamrice at 2:46 PM on August 20, 2007

I would not use dairy products. I don't know if you could taste them, since you don't think coconut milk has a coconut flavor, and I very much disagree, but I would taste them and not like that.

I would use some coconut milk, maybe the very fattest part. When you open the can, do you find the cream separated on top? Use only that, and a DIY Thai thickener made from tapioca starch and veggie stock.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:47 PM on August 20, 2007

Had to look up Quinoa. Interesting, never heard of it before. If you were going to do rice and since you aren't trying to be authentic, could you try a Panang inspired risotto? The risotto rice gets very creamy without the addition of milk. You could still add in some coconut extract or shredded fresh coconut if you wanted the flavor.

Just an off the wall idea from me (although I think I might try a Curry Risotto sometime soon!)
posted by mmascolino at 2:48 PM on August 20, 2007

I would add a little cornstarch or pureed vegetables to thicken. Roux+milk is basically milk gravy, which seems like the wrong thing to add to a thai inspired dish; silken tofu has a soy flavor and a sort of creamy yet granular texture. I don't find soy to be particularly healthy either, and would rather have the more delightfully textured coconut milk than a heap of tofu, all things considered. But the cornstarch will work- however, no starch is going to have the exact mouthfeel as fat.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:53 PM on August 20, 2007

I've used full-fat goat yoghurt as a substitute for coconut milk in recipes before. It obviously won't be coconutty but will have a really good flavor and texture. And, considering that everything in the world has fewer calories than coconut milk, will be lower in calories.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 4:22 PM on August 20, 2007

Is this a dish where you can do the sauce and tofu+vegetables separately?

In one pot, simmer the tofu and vegetables in a light broth with aromatics. In a separate pan, use only the amount of coconut milk that you need to make the sauce and simmer it with a small dice of the same vegetables and other ingredients. Strain the contents so you only get the finished sauce without other bits.

When you're ready to plate, spoon the tofu and vegetables from the pot onto a plate/bowl with bit of the broth and then top with a few spoons of the sauce. It should be healthier and more elegant at the same time.
posted by junesix at 4:29 PM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: So yogurt won't separate when cooked, Mustcatch?
posted by HotPatatta at 4:41 PM on August 20, 2007

I cut mine back to half coconut milk and half chicken stock, ther e isnt really any substitute for fat in cooking, that's what's so amazing about it...

oh and coconut milk should have TONS of flavour, not like cream at all.
posted by Cosine at 4:53 PM on August 20, 2007

I have personally used non-firm tofu (it comes in a spectrum) and some extract to simulate coconut milk. My understanding is that coconut oil is extremely unhealthy since it comes with a variety of especially artery-clogging fats.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:12 PM on August 20, 2007

I've actually bought a "vegan pudding mix" before, which called for pureeing silken tofu (soft) as the pudding base. It seems quite reasonable to me to try this as a sauce thickener/base. Either that, or soy milk with tapioca starch (mix a tablespoon or two of tapioca starch with just a little soy milk, then add more and more soy milk a little at a time - this will help get a solution without lumps - then cook the mixture so that the starch thickens it).

Either that, or just make the sauce full-strength, and use less sauce per serving.
posted by amtho at 5:14 PM on August 20, 2007

use light coconut milk and chicken stock.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:28 PM on August 20, 2007

Here's a substitution suggestion using equal measure evaporated skim milk plus a small amount of (artificial) coconut extract.

That would retain some creaminess.
posted by rob511 at 5:28 PM on August 20, 2007

I haven't had a problem with the goat yoghurt separating. (I have had problems with normal cow yoghurt separating, though) however, when I start making the same sort of sauce as you are describing, I start off on a fairly low heat (about medium-low) and mix the yoghurt, curry paste, and spices. I also usually bake the tofu and steam/saute the vegetables before adding them to the sauce and generally keep it on a lowish heat throughout. I don't know if this is what keeps the sauce from getting weird but it works for me. And creates something delicious.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 6:35 PM on August 20, 2007

My recommendation? Intensify the flavor, use full fat coconut milk, and eat a smaller portion. If you're worried about not feeling full enough, make some steamed veggies on the side and pile on that delicious crunchy quinoa.

OR: I agree that coconut milk has a strong flavor, although it is different than the flavor of coconut. I believe that some coconut milk is natural separated, so you could use the non-fatty part of it, and then cream up the dish using yogurt. Yogurt is actually a fairly authentic ingredient for curries (in India and Pakistan, at least) unless I'm mistaken, so there's no shame in using it here for the same effect.

I think you add the yogurt near the very end, so separation is not a problem.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2007

Coconut milk isn't unhealthy, in fact it's one of the healthiest things you can have.. But cooking it may make it quite unhealthy. Why not make it yourself? It's amazing when it's freshly made. It's a bit of a hassle to deal with coconuts though.
posted by rainy at 9:35 PM on August 20, 2007

I've used the coconut extract + yogurt approach once. Tasted fine, but the yogurt separated on me. I should have let the dish cool down a bit before stirring it in.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:49 AM on August 21, 2007

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