Archive | September, 2013

Nuts about coconut oil

26 Sep


My love affair with coconut goes back to my childhood when my father would crack open a fresh coconut with a hammer and separate the dense “meat” from the shell to give all of us a sweet, chewy treat. I can still feel the way the fresh coconut squeaked against my teeth.

Candy, cakes, cookies, ice cream, Asian sauces, on shrimp — I’ve eaten coconut every way imaginable. But I hadn’t cooked with coconut oil until a few months ago. Now that I have, I’m hooked. The slightly sweet oil adds a subtle flavor to all kinds of dishes, although it’s best used as a substitute for butter or oil in baking. It’s also delicious right out of the jar; spread it instead of butter on toast, pancakes or English muffins.

But all coconut oil isn’t created equal. The variety of coconut oil maligned for years was “hydrogenated,” a process of adding hydrogen to oil, then subjecting it to high pressure and temperature to create fats that are solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated oils contain “trans fat,” which the Food and Drug Administration has linked to heart disease.

The type of coconut oil I cook with is “virgin” or “unrefined,” which means that it is cold-pressed from freshly harvested coconut meat. Having never been subjected to heat, the natural flavor, aroma and scent are intact. Want to give your nose a thrill? Just open a jar and sniff.

Since coconut oil has become more popular, you no longer have to go to a specialty store to buy it. I get mine at the local supermarket, where it sits on the shelves alongside other vegetable oils — but be prepared to pay more, as coconut oil prices range from $7 to $12 or more per pint. I prefer organic coconut oil, so I usually pick mine up from the natural foods section. The oil, sold in glass jars, should be a pearlescent white solid. If it has a dark or yellowish tint, it’s rancid and should be avoided.

Coconut oil stores well unrefrigerated for months. If kept in a cabinet, it’ll usually retain solid form (which is more of a semisolid, so don’t expect the density of shortening or butter). If you leave it on the counter or next to the stove, it’ll begin to soften and often liquefy. No problem. To resolidify it, just move it to a cooler place.

I’ve experimented using coconut oil in a variety of dishes, sometimes adapting recipes or creating my own. Below is a selection of my quick and easy favorites.

Some things to consider when using coconut oil:

** When a recipe specifies liquid oil, just heat the oil for a few seconds or leave it sitting in a warm area of the kitchen.

** It’s lighter than other vegetable oils, but a little still goes a long way. When substituting for butter or margarine, start out with a smaller amount than what’s specified. If you need more, you can add it.

** When sauteing with coconut oil, take care not to overheat it. If the oil takes on a yellowish cast, it’s ruined and you need to start over.

** The Coconutty Nut Butter recipe makes a spread that’s less dense and sticky than peanut butter. You might want to play around with the amount of oil to get a consistency you like. Also, it solidifies in the refrigerator, which makes it harder to spread. Just leave it on the counter for a few minutes to soften before using.

** If you use coconut oil to cook, be aware that it imparts a slightly sweet, coconut flavor. If you don’t like sweet meat, you’ll want to save coconut oil for other dishes.


These have the most amazing texture and the coconut oil frosting will make you swoon with pleasure.

These have the most amazing texture and the coconut oil frosting will make you swoon with pleasure.

This cupcake recipe is vegan, which means it contains no eggs, dairy, or other animal products. But don’t worry, even without eggs the batter will rise and the cupcakes will hold together. You may raise an eyebrow, as I did, when seeing that you need to add vinegar, but do not leave it out. It reacts with the baking soda to make the batter rise and fluff up. Enjoy.

Fluffy Coconut Cupcakes 

1 ¾ cups cake flour or all-purpose flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk 

 ½ cup unrefined coconut oil, liquefied (see note)

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Coconut Frosting (recipe follows)

Shredded coconut, optional

Heat oven to 350 degrees and line cupcake pans with 12 paper cupcake liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together coconut milk, oil, vanilla and vinegar. Pour the wet mixture over the dry mixture and whisk until just combined. Do not over-mix. Fill the cupcake wells about two-thirds full with batter. Bake at 350 for 18 to 25 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in near the center of the cupcake comes out clean. Cool cupcakes completely before frosting. If desired, sprinkle frosted cupcakes with shredded coconut. Makes 12 cupcakes. Note: To liquefy the oil, heat it for a few seconds or place the jar in a warm area of the kitchen. 

Coconut Frosting 

½ cup unrefined coconut oil

1 ½ to 2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 to 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk

Using a hand-held mixer, beat the coconut oil until smooth. With the mixer on low, add 1 ½ cups of the confectioners’ sugar, the vanilla and 1 tablespoon coconut milk at a time and beat until the frosting becomes of a spreading consistency. Adding more milk and/or sugar as necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Beat on high for 2 minutes until light and fluffy. 

Recipe adapted from 

Serve this colorful stir-fry as a side dish or add thinly sliced chicken breast for a one-dish meal over wholewheat linguine or brown rice.

Coconut Confetti Stirfry 

3 to 5 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil

1 clove elephant garlic OR 6 cloves regular garlic, chopped

1 or 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced, optional

1 red or orange bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

1 yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

1 green bell pepper, cored and cut into strips

A few sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped and soaked for 10 minutes in just-boiled water

Sea salt, to taste

Ground red pepper (cayenne), to taste 

Heat oil in a large iron skillet on medium heat, then add chopped garlic and saute until translucent. Add chicken, if using, and cook, stirring, until all pieces have been seared. Increase heat to high, then add peppers and drained tomatoes. Stir with spatula, making sure all pieces are coated with oil. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium, continue stirring until peppers are slightly browned on the edges and have lost their crispness, and the chicken, if using, is cooked through. 
Makes 2 main-dish or 4 side-dish servings.

Coconutty Nut Butter 

2 cups peanuts, almonds OR cashews

Up to ¾ cup unrefined coconut oil

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste 

Place nuts in a food processor and grind to a fine powder. Leaving the powder in the food processor, add the coconut oil a little at a time and process until you get the smoothness and consistency you desire; you may not need all of the oil. Add salt. The “butter” will be kind of runny, but will solidify when chilled in the refrigerator. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container, but serve at room temperature. (If you prefer your nut butter to be sweet, add a couple of teaspoons of honey.) 
Makes about 2 cups.

Recipe adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon

Coconut Potato Bake 

¼ cup unrefined coconut oil

4 large russet potatoes

1 clove elephant garlic OR 4 cloves regular garlic, finely chopped

Sea salt, to taste

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Melt the coconut oil in the oven in a large baking dish. Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Add potatoes and garlic to the baking dish and stir well to coat with oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Bake 20 minutes, then stir and bake 20 minutes more or until lightly browned. Makes 4 servings. Variation: Coconut Chile Potato Bake, add a chopped serrano chile pepper (seeds removed) to the potato-garlic mixture. 

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Urban oasis: Bernice Garden

9 Sep

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, some forward-thinking person scratched the word “hope” into cement poured for the foundation of the Bernice Garden in downtown Little Rock. Today, it seems only fitting that such a sentiment is the sole defacement in the tiny, blooming oasis in an area of town long considered unsafe, even seedy.

When assemblage artist and collector Anita Davis bought the vacant lot at the corner of Daisy Bates and Main streets in 2005, it was a blank canvas waiting for a person with vision and imagination to bring it to life. Now it’s a vibrant cultural and artistic hub as well as a serene place for reflection or simply taking a break during a hectic workday.

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy)

The Bernice Garden on South Main in downtown Little Rock (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy The Bernice Garden)

On Sundays from April through November, visitors flock to the Farmers Market devoted to local and organic products, then linger at the garden to enjoy the native plants and sculptures by Arkansas artists. Many stroll on over to the neighboring Bernice and Lincoln buildings, also owned by Davis, for a bite to eat at Boulevard Bread Co. or to savor a scoop of handmade Loblolly ice cream at the Green Corner Store.

The garden also hosts the Arkansas Cornbread Festival each November, which last year attracted more than 3,000 cornbread lovers. In May, the farmer’s market shared space with the first Arkansas Strawberry Festival as a celebration of Mother’s Day. In April, poultry and plant enthusiasts were invited to gather and swap chicks and seedlings.

Even when there are no events, you’ll see people sitting under the wooden shelter eating lunch, dog owners letting their pooches sniff the greenery or neighborhood children romping among the sculptures. Everything in the garden was created for and by Arkansans, with the focus on valuing and using native resources.

Bringing sculpture and art to the South Main area was one of Davis’s goals, but she also wanted to encourage and nurture Arkansas artists. So each year, she invites Arkansas artists to submit sculpture designs, then a committee selects six for installation in the garden for one year. 

“Nurture” is a word Davis uses often when describing her projects along the two-block stretch of Main between Daisy Bates and 16th streets where she also owns the building housing The Root Cafe and one she’s renovated or the Esse Purse Museum, a celebration of women and handbags througout the 20th century. Davis says she sees her enterprises not just as businesses, but as ways of nurturing the area by attracting entrepeneurs, artists and others interested in developing and recycling natural assets. And she wanted those already living in the neighborhood to benefit from her efforts.

“The garden has definitely made the neighborhood more family friendly,” says Dana Landrum, who lives within walking distance and frequently visits the garden with her three children. “It’s a gathering place for us as a community and it also attracts people who don’t live in the neighborhood. It’s a great way to introduce them to our community.”

When Davis bought the vacant lot in 2005, she had no grand plans. She had purchased the Bernice Building next door in 2004 as a business investment and as a storage space for furniture and other items she had inherited from her parents. When the lot became available, she decided to acquire it too. After that, everything “grew organically,” Davis says.

Looking back, the timing seems serendipitous because it was a period during which Davis was educating herself about the green movement. Keenly interested in recycling and reducing waste as well as repurposing old things for new uses, Davis went to Seattle, Wash., to attend a National Main Street organization conference. There, she learned about “placemaking,” the concept of designing or creating public spaces that honor the qualities, values and assets of a community or neighborhood. She realized her empty lot could become a community hub, a nurturing center for the South Main area and its residents. While a privately owned space, it would be open for public enjoyment.

As much as possible, Davis wanted the garden to reflect the nature of Arkansans. As the Bernice Garden website says, “Arkansans tend to be of hearty stock, people who can stand up to every extreme while retaining a sense of whimsy. The artwork and structures of The Bernice Garden reflect these qualities, adding unique and understated beauty to the mix.”

She also pursued a “sustainability” aspect, using recycled or repurposed materials for the structure, artwork and other features. A walkway of crushed glass — tumbled so that it has no sharp edges — winds throughout the 100-by-150-foot space. The resurfaced concrete patio was once the foundation for a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant that occupied the lot until it burned to the ground. A 50-gallon cistern for gathering rainwater is covered with reclaimed wood from slave quarters at the Alexander Plantation in Scott. The patio’s wood canopy funnels rainwater into the cistern; the collected water sustains the native plants with which garden is landscaped.

Laverne Davis, master gardener

Laverne Davis, master gardener (photo by Laura Hardy, courtesy of The Bernice Garden

Davis entrusted master gardener LaVerne Davis (who isn’t related to Anita) to keep the garden growing and blooming: “When LaVerne is working out in the garden, she’s so joyous. People just come up to her and they have this joyous exchange.”

“I feel like I’m an artist and this is my canvas,” LaVerne Davis says. “I absolutely love this garden. This feeds my spirit. It’s a peaceful place to work.”

A couple of times a week, LaVerne and assistant Willie Allen trundle in with seedlings in styrofoam cups, along with pruning shears, shovels and other tools. They weed and plant, rotating plants in and out according to season.
“Color, color, color, color,” LaVerne Davis crows when asked what she’s got planned for the garden this summer. “Lots of pink and bright, bright colors. Myself, I like color.”

The garden not only benefits the neighborhood, but also attracts people who don’t live in the immediate area to get out of their comfort zone to check out Main Street south of Interstate 430, says Liz Sanders, Bernice Garden coordinator. “I’ve had many people tell me they’d never been south of Community Bakery” at 12th and Main streets, Sanders says, explaining that the perception formerly was that the south Main Street area wasn’t safe and that people wouldn’t go there to shop or attend events. That’s changed, largely because of Davis’s efforts.

“It’s been amazing. What’s going on down here deserves attention,” Sanders says. “It’s something to say that Anita is a private citizen spending her money in this part of town and putting her heart into it.”

LaVerne Davis says visitors to the park are always curious about the garden, its dual public/private nature, and how it was developed. Many have an emotional reaction when visiting, especially when talking with her about the plants.

“We have a lot of folks come in and they are not familiar with a lot of plants but when they see ones like marigolds and coxcomb, they’re reminded of their grandmothers’ yards,” she says. “I remember one morning, a guy came by looking very, very sad. I smiled and said good morning. I asked him if he recognized any of these plants. He said he did — zinnia. When we finished talking, that sad, sad face was gone. He left with a big smile.”

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