Every month or so, when the SAVEUR staff works late to close another issue of the magazine, we all sit down together to share a meal prepared in the test kitchen. Whenever a holiday coincides with my turn to cook, I like to take the opportunity to make a meal that will get everyone in the spirit. My most recent contribution was a Mardi Gras-themed dinner, and in choosing an accompaniment for it, I decided to update the ambrosia salad, that staple of Southern housewives' luncheons, a cooling combination of orange slices and coconut. The recipe put me on the hunt for one ingredient I'd never looked for in its unprocessed form: coconut. Old recipes for ambrosia call for gratings of fresh coconut, but with modern convenience came the prepackaged, sweetened kind, the form I'd always taken advantage of. It makes a fine substitute in a pinch, but for this dinner I wanted the real thing. Only fresh ingredients here!
I took great pains to purchase the kumquats, blood oranges, Mineolas, and Ruby Red grapefruits with which I would vary the citrus part of the salad. I figured I'd find mature coconuts, of the age at which the meat is firm enough to be grated, at my local grocery store, but in my shopping I saw only young coconuts, which still have the fibrous white casing attached to the familiar brown shell. The meat of these coconuts is much softer, almost like gelatinized pudding. In a hurry and not wanting to waste time running around New York City on a wild-goose chase, I picked up two and hoped for the best.
Never having opened young coconuts, I referred to an online step-by-step pictorial, and it turns out they're easier to pop than the older varieties. I simply swung a meat cleaver into the center of each one in turn, and when the cleaver lodged in the middle, I picked up the whole outfit and pried it open over a bowl to catch all the liquid inside. Then I scooped out the coconut with a spoon, as if it were Jell-O. The meat was that soft. I was disappointed not to have beautiful shavings to add to the salad, but, cut into thin strips, the glossy white coconut looked great and tasted as sweet and nutty as the grated flakes I remember on the surface of my grandmother's coconut cake—on which, for the record, she only ever used fresh coconut.