If you were shipwrecked on a desert island with only one food, what would you choose? Think survival. Only unprocessed, raw ingredients are allowed in this exercise — no energy bars or hamburgers.
Call it coincidence, call it cosmic, call it luck, but if you really were trapped on a desert island, one of the best foods you could hope to find is a food you'd actually be likely to find. Packed with energy, protein, fiber, vitamins, and many other nutrients, coconut is a complete and proven survival food.
The coconut inhabits innumerable deserted islands thanks to a dispersal method by which it slowly floats around the ocean and occasionally makes landfall on suitable shores, where it sprouts and colonizes. This is one reason why coconut is the poster child for my personal culinary style: the Slow-Boat School of Cooking.
Slow-boat cooking is a regional cuisine focused on local ingredients but not to the point of dogma. Slow-boating allows the strategic application of select ingredients from faraway places — like coconuts — provided they adhere to two basic rules:
1) The faraway food in question cannot be grown at home, ever. This rules out imported fruits like strawberries and apples from the southern hemisphere in winter, when they're out of season at home. Slow-boat principles dictate that you preserve local foods in season and use the storage forms all year long, rather than buying the imported version out of season.
Ingredients like coconuts, chocolate, and black pepper cannot be grown at home. They also satisfy the second requirement.
2) Imported ingredients are allowed if they can be transported slowly, unrefrigerated — like the spice and pasta Marco Polo brought home from China. Polo did not bring back fresh lychee fruits or frozen pot stickers, which would have rotted and melted. Shipping food slowly, unrefrigerated, is the most efficient way. While realistically it's hard to know by what mode your food arrived, if, in the evolution of our cuisine, we stick to foods that could be transported by slow boat, then we hold open the possibility that they will be. And we'll create cuisines that could someday be close to carbon neutral, if some shipping companies would go back to using sailboats. Languedoc vineyards in France have in fact begun shipping its wine this way.
Wine could challenge coconuts as a slow-boat poster product — think message in a bottle — were it not for the fact that so much good wine is produced closer to home.
Coconut brings a flavor and richness to the table that is as close to magical as food can get. It mixes harmoniously with many local ingredients, and today I'm going to focus on how it can be applied to elk and green chile.
The first step is to thaw your meat, which doesn't have to be elk. It could be anything, even fish. If you have frozen green chile, thaw that too. If not, hang in there.
Many cooks, even in tropical countries where the coconuts drop from the trees, balk at making their own coconut milk. And while canned coconut milk qualifies as slow-boat friendly, I prefer to make it fresh.
Picking a good coconut can be a crapshoot, but you can improve your odds by choosing coconuts that feel heavy for their size, don't have cracks or mold on the outside, and have audible water sloshing inside. Consider bringing a bowl to the store. Smash your new coconut on the parking lot, drain the water into the bowl, and taste it. If it tastes rotten, exchange the coconut for another and try again. Alternatively, you can keep a can of coconut milk as a backup in case of a bad coconut.
Pull apart your smashed coconut and bake the broken shards at 350 for 30 minutes, or until the edges start to turn golden. Remove from heat and let cool. Chop the flesh, which should pull away from the shell easily with a butter knife or spoon, and put it in a food processor or blender. Grind for about three minutes, then slowly add two cups of water. Blend/process for three more minutes. Let steep for 15 minutes, then pour the whole business through a filter. A tea strainer or paint strainer works well, as does cheesecloth or other cotton material stretched over a bowl. Squeeze all the liquid into a bowl, and set aside the leftover coconut flesh and add to your next stir-fry.
Cut your meat into one-inch chunks and squeeze a few slow-boat limes over the chunks. Marinate 15 minutes, and then brown the meat in a pan with hot oil. When brown, add a sliced onion, a few chopped garlic cloves, and some lime leaves (I get mine from a local greenhouse).
I buy green chiles by the bushel in August, when they're in season, and roast and freeze them for year-round use. If you didn't do this, you have permission to go buy fresh Anaheim or New Mexico chile peppers from the store, and roast them yourself to make this dish. It won't be slow-boat, but it will be good practice and will hopefully motivate you to come aboard the slow boat this summer and freeze a stash of roasted green chile.
While the meat is browning, peel and clean seven to 10 chiles under running water, removing seeds if you wish, and chop them.
After you add the onions and garlic to the pan, let them cook until they start to sweat, then add your coconut milk. Stir, add soy sauce to taste, and squeeze in a few more limes. Simmer five minutes, add the green chile, simmer two more minutes, and turn off the heat. Serve with rice, and garnish with cilantro if you have any on board.