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Cooking With Coconut and Almond Milk

Try these creamy, dairy-free dishes

Organic White Almond Milk

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Coconut and almond milk is a healthy alternative to dairy.

En español | Last fall my daughter Maggy started making nut milks. A health-food evangelist, she gave me a nut-milk bag as a little surprise gift, hoping I too would get inspired. I tried it a few times but wasn't yet a convert to nut milks, so the bag got lost in the pantry.

Not long after, my husband, David, went for his annual physical and came home with the result: elevated cholesterol. Wanting to avoid medication, David began changing his diet. Between his lifestyle change and our commitment to eating less meat, we've been moving toward a more plant-centered way of eating.

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The shift has been gradual but steady. In David's quest to find a cholesterol-free cream for his coffee and tea, we discovered the So Delicious brand of coconut milk creamer in the dairy case at our local Whole Foods. David made the switch right away, but I'd still buy a half-gallon of milk for the house.

Both of us love creamy soups and pasta, and for those dishes I decided to try enriching our pastas and soups with canned coconut milk (rather than evaporated milk) and the coconut milk creamer he was using for his coffee. To our delight, these no-cholesterol milks were equally satisfying. Gradually, the cans of coconut milk started to outnumber the cans of evaporated milk in our pantry, and coconut creamer began replacing the dairy milks in our fridge.

There's an old saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. A few months ago, I came across the nut-milk bag and was finally ready. I've started making my own plant-based creams and milks. For more flexibility I make my nut milks concentrated: They work well for creamy pastas and soups but, much like evaporated milk, can easily be diluted with water (and sweetened and flavored with a little honey and vanilla) for cereals and smoothies. I've even started adding dried fruit to the soaking nuts — think blueberry and walnut or prune and hazelnut — for naturally sweet nut milks.

I'm offering a few simple recipes to exemplify how easy it is to turn guilty pleasures, such as cream of tomato soup and Alfredo-style pasta, into no-cholesterol dishes that you can enjoy on a regular basis.

I'm also including a little recipe for making nut cream. I realize that many of you may not be convinced it's worth the effort to make the milks yourself, but you might want to file it away — in the folder named "When the Student Is Ready.""

Creamless Fettuccine Alfredo With Mushrooms

Serves 4

  • Salt
  • 1 box (12 ounces) fettuccine: regular, whole-wheat or gluten-free
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound sliced domestic or baby bella mushrooms
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
  • 1 cup coconut milk creamer or Homemade Nut Cream (see recipe below)*
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 2 tablespoons snipped chives or thinly sliced scallions (optional)

*You can use canned coconut milk here if you like, but unlike the coconut creamer, it has a distinct coconut flavor. And if you're not trying to avoid dairy, you can also substitute evaporated milk for the coconut creamer.

Bring 2 quarts of salted water to boil in a large soup kettle. Add fettuccine; cook partially covered, at first stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until just tender. Drain pasta and return it to the pot.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until wisps of smoke start to rise from the pan. Add mushrooms; saute until liquid has evaporated and mushrooms start to turn brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, a light sprinkling of salt and several grinds of pepper; continue to saute until fragrant, about a minute longer. Whisk in flour, then broth and creamer to make a smooth creamy sauce. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium and continue to simmer until sauce thickens, a couple of minutes longer. Stir in the 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Pour sauce over pasta; toss and serve immediately, sprinkling with optional chives and additional Parmesan.

Creamless Cream of Tomato Soup

Makes a generous quart

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium-to-large onion, chopped
  • 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can (13.5 ounces) light coconut milk or 1 1/2 cups Homemade Nut Cream (see recipe below)
  • 1/2 cup packed basil leaves*
  • Salt and ground black pepper

*If you don't want to use fresh basil, you can add 2 teaspoons of dried basil to the pan along with the tomatoes.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high. Add onion; saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, to blend flavors, about 5 minutes. Stir in coconut milk. Pour soup into a blender, along with basil. Puree, making sure to vent blender by removing pop-out center and draping a kitchen towel over the top, until creamy smooth, 30 seconds to a minute. Return to pan; reheat to a simmer, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve.

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Nut Cream

Makes a generous 2 cups

  • At this strength the nut milk is more like cream; you can dilute it for cereal milk. You can also sweeten it to taste with honey or agave.
  • 2 cups raw nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews*)

*Unlike the rest of the nuts, cashews do not need soaking.

Soak nuts in 2 cups of water until soft and hydrated, several hours or overnight. Drain and rinse nuts and turn them into a blender, along with 2 cups of water. Process until milk is smooth and creamy, about 30 seconds. Turn into a very fine mesh strainer, a cheesecloth-lined strainer or a nut-milk bag. Strain nut milk from nut meal, pressing (or squeezing, if using bag) to release as much milk as possible. (Can be refrigerated in a covered container for several days.)

AARP food expert Pam Anderson is a best-selling cookbook author and blogger at threemanycooks.com.

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