Arroz Con Coco: Jazz Up Your Rice Colombian Style

WHAT TO EAT: Arroz con coco

WHERE TO EAT IT: All along the Caribbean coast in Colombia. I’ve spied it in Brazil too but to a much lesser extent

I like rice.  No, let’s correct that. I LOVE rice!  It’s been a staple food for me since I was a kid.  Back then, I was the pickiest eater going.  I gave my mom quite a bit of trouble with my choosy eating ways and if she could see me now eating ants (!!) and innards, she would surely shake her head in disbelief!  One food that can always satisfy me, as the fussy kid or the adult that tries anything once, is rice.  These humble grains are consumed around the world in one form or another with some cultures subsisting primarily on the starch.

In my world, rice needs little to no adornment.  A pinch of salt and pat of butter make those grains sing in my mouth. But I won’t deny the allure of a fragrant pilaf, creamy risotto, a rich, savory paella or even a forkful of the fried rice I like to eat straight out of the white take-out Chinese cartons. When we arrived to the Caribbean coast in Colombia, I discovered a preparation of my beloved rice that was completely new to me and all at once, deliciously addictive! And now I want to share it with you.

Arroz con coco (or coconut rice) is typically eaten alongside fresh fish, another staple of the northern coast of the country.  The slightly sweet rice perfectly complements the savory fried fish.  If you are a lover of things salty and sweet together like I am, then you have got to try this dish!  Or maybe you are bored making the same old rice dishes, then this recipe is sure going to jazz up your rice!

 

arroz con coco served with fried fish

arroz con coco served with fried fish

Rice has gotten a bad rep lately.  Especially white rice.  Anything white and starchy is seen as a bit of a devil to the health conscious.  And it’s true, brown rice is healthier.  I am not going to lie about it.  For white rice, they remove the hull and with it, many nutrients. That being said, you can certainly use brown rice in this recipe. While I am not at all opposed to the lovely brown rice and I enjoy its nutty flavor in a variety of dishes,  it’s not traditional in arroz con coco and I honestly feel the results work better with white rice. But if you are one that views white rice as the antichrist, then by all means substitute the brown one.  And if you don’t eat rice at all, for health reasons or any other, well, I feel sorry for you!  But that means more rice for the rest of us!

But coconut! Ah, that is a different story.  Coconut has become the poster child for health-loving, fit people.  Once feared as a culprit of saturated fat, coconut is currently experiencing its much-deserved heyday across North America and Europe. Countries in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world have been reaping the health benefits of this ubiquitous fruit for years.  In South America, especially in Brazil and Colombia, coconut is prepared in a variety of ways and are part of the staple foods.

coconut water sold on the streets in Cartagena, Colombia

coconut water sold on the streets in Cartagena, Colombia

What makes coconut so healthy?  For starters, it’s an excellent source of vitamins and minerals including an abundance of manganese. It also contains a good amount of potassium, iron and phosphorous.  The coconut water is identical to human blood plasma (in Ph) and this is why it’s the most perfect post-workout hydration.  It’s like gatorade but natural (and tastes so much better!)  It replaces electrolytes with its high levels of potassium, sodium and chloride.  It’s naturally very low in both sugar and calories.  Coconut is also rich in lauric acid which is a natural antifungal, antibacterial and is difficult to find in other foods.  It’s this lauric acid that really sets the coconut apart from other foods. You can only find it in coconut, palm kernel oil and human breast milk.

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Coconut oil, once criticized for its saturated fat (which it does indeed contain a large amount of) is now considered to be one of the healthiest fats to consume.  In fact, coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fats known to man.  Contrary to older wisdom, saturated fats are not the culprit in clogging your arteries resulting in strokes and heart attacks.  Also, the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides.  What does this mean for your health?  That they can actually have a reverse effect and instead of clogging arteries, they help to clear them.  These fats are easily metabolized and are thought to help with a variety of conditions.  They are even sold as health supplements! Click here to read more about these unique fats that are only found in coconut oil or palm kernel oil.

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I’ve really only scratched the surface, as there are much more health benefits to consuming coconut.  Best of all for the cook and the eater, it is versatile and delicious! My first encounter was practically off the plane in Cartagena, Colombia.  On almost every street corner, vendors sell coconut in one form or another.  Plates of coconut meat are stacked high and the best vendors sell the whole fruit by simply making a small hole and inserting a straw so that you can quench your thirst with the ultimate quencher, coconut water.  Not the kind in tetra packs in Whole Foods, no sir. This is straight from the source.  And if you happen to be beachside in the Carribean part of Colombia, get yourself a coco loco!  No trip to the beach is complete without indulging in this tropical tipple.

Laurent & I happily sucking down some coco locos

Laurent & I happily sucking down some coco locos

My first taste of arroz con coco came shortly after, when we made our way to the San Bernardo Islands.  This chain of islands is part of a larger National Park (Rosario) and is easily reached from the town of Tolu.  The islands are pretty far removed from the mainland and so all the food needs to be either grown, caught or transported in. The people living on the island don’t have much but they have a surplus of two things. Fish and coconut.  The most commonly prepared dish is  ‘pargo de rojo con arroz de coco y patacones’ (red snapper with coconut rice and fried, smashed plantains). Yum, I can still taste it thinking of it now!

coconut filled palm trees line the San Bernardo Islands

coconut filled palm trees line the San Bernardo Islands

Even though the arroz con coco pairs nicely with fish, it certainly isn’t limited to that protein.  You can eat it with lentils, beans, chicken and even beef.  It’s so good, it can even stand on its own!  There are a few ways to make it, some more laborious than others.  I’ve seen a few recipes that suggest merely cooking rice in coconut milk. While this may seem like an easy way out, don’t do it.  The results are just not very authentic if you are after a true Colombian arroz con coco and authenticity aside, it’s simply not as flavorful this way.  

While this recipe does indeed use coconut milk, it calls for the milk to be reduced until it forms a caramelized paste called a titoté in Colombia.  It takes some time for the milk to reduce but don’t skip this step! When you caramelize anything, you are giving it great flavor.  If you skip over it, or rush it-you are going to lose the flavor.  Flavor is key to cooking!

Things You Will Need:

-Coconut Milk (fresh is desirable but I understand that it’s laborious, so feel free to use canned)

-Rice-I really recommend using long grain white rice here but if you must use brown, increase the water to 2.5 cups and the cooking time to 45-55 minutes

-Sugar in the Raw or other Brown Sugar (or Panela if you can get your hands on it!)

-Pinch of Salt

-Water

-Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil-for finishing (optional)

Now lets have a little chat about the amounts.  If this is for a side dish to a protein serving 4-5 people (fish, chicken, lentils or other legumes) use the ratio of 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of coconut milk and 2 cups of water (yes, I realize that that is 4 cups of liquid to a mere 1 cup of rice but I’ll explain).  For these measurements, 2 tbps of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 tbsp of coconut oil also work.  

If you want to enjoy just the coconut rice on its own or if you are cooking for a crowd, increase the amounts to 4 cups of coconut milk, 2 cups of rice, 4 cups of water and 4 tbps of sugar and 2 tsp of salt.

The reason that you need 4 cups total of liquid (2 cups coconut milk and 2 cups of water) is because you are going to reduce the coconut milk to nothing but toasted flavor.  The water is the only liquid that you will cook the rice in.

The coconut oil is completely optional but be sure to add it at the end after it has cooled a bit.  This is to ensure that you don’t lose any of the health benefits of the raw, virgin coconut oil (when you heat it if it’s raw oil, you instantly lose the health properties). Just add about 2 tbsp and fluff it with a fork.  I love the texture it adds not to mention all the health benefits.

How to Prepare:

Don’t be put off by the reduction of the coconut milk!  It’s truly easy and perhaps it takes some time and is not ideal for a worknight meal but it adds sooo much flavor that you will be justly rewarded, I promise!  After the coconut milk reduces, it proceeds just like regular rice so you can go and do something else while the rice does its thing.  

First you need to get a medium sized saucepan (the one you usually make rice in-preferably one with a heavy bottom and a tight fitting lid). Pour the coconut milk in all at once and turn on the heat to medium-high.  Let it sit until the coconut milk starts to boil.  Boil the milk for 35-45 minutes or until it reduces to form a paste that resembles oatmeal on the bottom.  You don’t need to stir it a lot while it boils but take care it doesn’t boil over but also don’t lower the heat too much so that it doesn’t boil at all!  Stir only once every so often.

After it reaches the paste-like consistency, you are going to have to be a bit more active at the stove.  Now is the time to stir often until the water from the coconut milk completely evaporates from the paste.  The oil in the coconut milk will begin to separate and the whole thing is going to start turning golden brown.  This is what you want!  Stir often to prevent it from burning and feel free to lower the heat a bit if you see it starting to burn.  

Look at the rice in the photo. See that nice, golden Brown color? That is the color you want the caramelized coconut milk to turn.

Look at the rice in the photo. See that nice, golden Brown color? That is the color you want the caramelized coconut milk to turn.

Once all the water is evaporated and it has turned a nice golden brown color (called the titoté), add in the sugar and the salt.  Stir to mix. Next, add the rice and stir to coat the rice evenly.  Pour the water in, stir once, raise the heat to medium-high again and bring to a boil uncovered.

Once it boils, put the lid on right away and lower the heat to the lowest setting.  Cook for 12 minutes on low heat. After that time, shut the heat off and let it sit undisturbed for 15-20 minutes.  Open the lid and let it cool, unstirred for 5-10 minutes.  Add coconut oil if using and fluff with a fork.  Serve on its own or as a side.

arroz con coco makes an ideal side dish

arroz con coco makes an ideal side dish

This dish is naturally vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free.  For a complete meal, serve with a protein like lentils or black beans.  

Warning: This dish is massively addicting!!

 

 

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