Coconut milk is not what sloshes around when you shake a whole coconut. That's coconut water, lately the darling of beverage manufacturers.
Like cow, goat or soy milk, coconut milk is a mixture of fat, water and flavorings. Thousands of years ago, people learned that grated fresh coconut, soaked in hot water and squeezed, would produce a liquid that adds richness and flavor to countless dishes.
Across Asian and Caribbean cuisines, especially, coconut milk serves as a base for meals from breakfast to dessert. It's indispensable to cooks making tom kha gai, Thai coconut chicken soup with lime, and Singaporean curry laksa, a delicious mashup of Chinese and Malay flavors.
Thai curry, and some Indian curries, are coconut milk based, along with many Asian gravies, dipping sauces and stews. It's simmered with Jamaican rice and peas, and boiled down into Vietnamese candy.
At the store, look in the Asian section for my favorite, Chaokoh, or another Thai brand, if possible. Unless you are on a diet, don't settle for light versions, which don't have as much flavor.
Coconut milk adds gloss and richness to adobo, the classic tangy Filipino stew of meat or seafood. This chicken adobo recipe from Cook's Illustrated (via Food.com) works well, with various proteins. But if you're scaling up the recipe, add broth or water to make sure it reaches halfway up the chicken thighs.
> Chicken Adobo
8 bone-in chicken thighs, 5 to 7 ounces each
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
3/4 cup cider vinegar
8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ground pepper
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Toss the chicken with the soy sauce in a large bowl. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Remove chicken from the soy sauce, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl. Transfer the chicken, skin-side down, to a 12-inch, nonstick skillet; set aside the soy sauce.
Place the skillet over medium-high heat and cook until the chicken skin is browned, 7 to 10 minutes.
While the chicken is browning, whisk coconut milk, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and pepper into the soy sauce.
Transfer chicken to a plate and discard any fat in the skillet. Return the chicken to the skillet skin-side down, add the coconut milk mixture, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Flip chicken skin side up and continue to cook, uncovered, until chicken is done, about 15 minutes or until it registers 175 F inside on a thermometer.
Transfer chicken to platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Remove bay leaves and skim any fat off surface of sauce. Return skillet to medium-high heat and cook until sauce is thickened, 5 to 7 minutes, if necessary.
Pour sauce over chicken, sprinkle with sliced scallion and serve.