This coconut and calabaza rice includes the latest power food—coconut oil. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

A healthy idea: Coconut oil

There’s one every year. An “it” ingredient that’s declared the ultimate power food. Not long ago, it was salmon with its healthy Omega 3’s. Then came blueberries and their antioxidants, then olive oil thanks to its good-for-you mono-unsaturated fats. So what will 2013 bring?

Say hello to coconut oil.

Long considered to be unhealthy because it’s a saturated fat, which generally contributes to heart disease, recent research is actually refuting that line of thinking and suggesting altogether the opposite: that coconut oil may not only be heart healthy but may also good for the body, inside and out, in a number of ways—from fighting off bacterial and viral infections to promoting weight loss to regulating blood sugar and thyroid function. “There is definitely a lot of talk about coconut oil right now,” says New York City nutritionist Adiana Castro, who runs her private practice, Compass Nutrition, in lower Manhattan and serves as the corporate nutritionist for the Federal Reserve Bank. “It makes a great substitute for just about any other kind of fat you would normally use and is better for you than butter or canola oil, for example.”

So why the change in thinking? Castro says early research now indicates that, even though coconut oil is a saturated fat, it’s molecular composition is different from that of other saturated fats. Coconut oil, she explains, has special fats called medium chain fatty acids (known as MCFA’s), as opposed to the long chain fatty acids normally found in other saturated fats. “The MCFA’s in coconut oil are smaller and the body breaks them down and metabolizes them faster,” she says. “That means they’re likelier to get converted to energy rather than stored as fat.” Anyone who’s battled with weight or diabetes understands the importance of regulating the pace at which foods are digested, which also has a direct impact on blood sugar levels.

In addition, coconut oil also contains lauric acid, which Castro says has long been an ingredient in anti-bacterial and viral medications. Lauric acid has also been found to increase the good cholesterol in the body, known as HDL, which can help cholesterol levels in general stay in check.

While the list of coconut oil’s benefits goes on—it’s even used as a skin and hair moisturizer!—Castro warns that people still need to be careful with just how much they use in their cooking. “It always happens. People hear it’s good for you and they think they can eat unlimited amounts of it, and that’s not the case,” she says. “It’s still a fat and that means you need to limit your intake of it, and make sure your diet is balanced.” Two tablespoons a day, she says, is a safe limit.

With its fairly high smoke point—about 350 degrees—coconut oil is great for sautéing vegetables or seafood. It can also be used in baking as a substitute for shortening or regular oil. When buying, make sure to go for extra virgin, unrefined coconut oil, which retains more nutrients than the refined version.

Today’s healthy recipe is a twist on the classics arroz con calabaza and arroz con coco popular in many Latin American countries. It begins, of course, with coconut oil in which onions, garlic and brown rice are sautéed. After adding some fresh calabaza, the whole thing is cooked in a blend of chicken stock and light coconut milk to really bring out the coconut flavor. (To amp up the coconut flavor even more just substitute the stock with more light coconut milk.) This makes a great side dish to grilled fish, and a perfect Meatless Monday main.

Coconut and calabaza rice

1 cups brown rice (preferably parboiled)
2 T extra virgin coconut oil
1 medium large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 lb. calabaza (or butternut squash), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 cup light coconut milk
3/4 tsp salt
A pinch ground white pepper
2 T cilantro, finely chopped

1. Rinse the rice. Place it in a bowl and cover with cold water. Swirl it with your hand and drain from the bowl being careful not to spill the grains. Repeat 2 to 3 times, or until the water runs clear. Drain well and set aside.

2. In a medium caldero, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat the grains in oil. Cook it for about 5 minutes, until the grains begin to get toasted. Add the calabaza, chicken stock, coconut milk, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat slightly. Cook, uncovered, until small craters start to form on the surface of the rice, about 25 minutes.

3. Carefully stir in the chopped cilantro with a fork. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for another 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, fluff with a fork and let sit for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

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