Question: I clipped the column of a few weeks ago in which you listed herbs that are interchangeable. It did not mention saffron--is there a substitute for this expensive spice?
Answer: If it's the yellow color desired, and not the taste, safflower flowers, sometimes called Mexican saffron, or even marigold petals may be substituted, writes Tom Stobart in "Herbs, Spices and Flavorings" (Overlook Press: $15.95, 1982). Unfortunately, there does not seem to be anything considered equivalent to true saffron in taste.
Q: I had four large coconuts sent to me and don't know how to open them. Also, how do you make coconut milk? And since there will be so much, can I freeze the coconut meat?
A: "Cooking Techniques" by Beverly Cox, with Joan Whitman (Tree Communications: $29.95, 1981) and "How Cooking Works" by Sylvia Rosenthal and Fran Shinagel (Tree Communications: $19.95, 1981) both instruct you to pierce the three eyes on one end of the coconut with a hammer and nail, pick or awl. Then drain the coconut liquid through a coffee filter or cheesecloth and set aside.
Bake the drained coconut at 325 degrees 15 minutes. Cool, then wrap in a kitchen towel to prevent shattering. The coconut should be easy to break open by striking with a hammer or back of a cleaver. Cut through the white flesh using a sharp knife, then scoop out the meat with a grapefruit spoon or point of a paring knife. The brown peel on the back of the pieces can be pared away with a vegetable peeler or sharp knife, or left on to protect fingers if the coconut is going to be grated by hand.
To make coconut cream, line a bowl with cheesecloth. Add one cup of grated coconut and one cup of boiling water, cover and steep 15 to 20 minutes. Gather the ends of the cheesecloth and twist, squeezing out all the liquid. Discard the coconut. The thick liquid that remains is called coconut cream.
Coconut meat may be stored, tightly covered, in the refrigerator or covered with coconut cream and frozen. Use grated or chopped pieces for pies, cakes, cookies and other baking or as a garnish for fruit. Fresh coconut is more flavorful and less sweet than packaged. To toast, toss in an iron skillet over medium heat three to five minutes or until it browns.
Q: I have a coffee bean tree that I think has several coffee beans ready to pick. I want to be sure they are the right color and I'm not sure what to do to cure them afterward. Can you help?
A: Coffee should be picked when the cherry turns crimson, eight or nine months after blossoming, according to "The Community Kitchens' Complete Guide to Gourmet Coffee" by John DeMers (Simon & Schuster: $9.95, 1986). When ripe, the beans need to be picked quickly or they will shrink and dry out, becoming unusable.
DeMers also describes an ancient method of processing in which the beans are given an initial washing, then spread in a single layer and dried in the sun for two to three weeks. They need to be turned often to ensure uniformity of drying and be covered at night for protection from moisture. Fermentation takes place during this drying process.
When dry, the beans are ready for milling to remove the husk, parchment and silver skin. The green beans that result are ready for roasting, then grinding.
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In response to the June 19 You Asked About . . . column on dicing or shredding ginger root, we received the following letter from J. Machin of North Hollywood:
"We have been 'into' Thai and Vietnamese food for some time now and they use a lot of fresh ginger. Our solution (we picked it up somewhere; we didn't invent it) is to keep the ginger in the freezer at all times.
"Grate it frozen. (We never dice or chop.) Use the coarse side of the grater. The woody fibers grate well and when frozen are indistinguishable from the rest. While it is a little more work this way, the results more than make up for it. This takes more strength and the ginger slides around a little, so be careful not to grate your knuckles."
The Times' Test Kitchen tried this suggestion, peeling the ginger root before freezing, and we agree that it works very well. A couple words of caution--use the grated ginger root immediately and do not allow the ginger root to thaw or it will become soft.
Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About . . ., Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.