If you're craving a trip to exotic lands, where palm trees sway and you never need a parka, I have a little help for you. I can't promise you airfare, but I can help you fuel the fantasy with a simple can of coconut milk.

Some of the lushest and creamiest dishes come from tropical regions, where coconut palms thrive, providing abundant coconut milk to enrich their signature dishes. Jamaica and the Bahamas, Hawaii, the Philippines, southern India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are just a few of the places that incorporate coconut milk to delicious effect. These coconut-infused cuisines can be a meatless diner's dream.

If you've ever picked up a coconut and shaken it, what you hear swishing around in there is coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut water has become a popular sports beverage in recent years because it is naturally rich in the same electrolytes that are mixed into sugary sports drinks. Coconut milk is another thing entirely, made by grinding mature coconut meat with water, then straining out the fiber. By adding more or less water, we get thick coconut cream, regular coconut milk and light coconut milk.

A can of coconut milk in your pantry is a ticket to paradise when it comes to a quick weeknight meal. You can use it as you would cream in cooking, because it won't curdle over heat. If you boil it or cook food in it, it becomes quite thick, and if you keep going, the oil will separate and coat the food.

This Thai curry is a perfect example of the use of coconut milk. Simply heating the coconut milk, red curry paste and stock creates a complex, spicy, creamy stew with minimal effort. An Indonesian dish slow-cooked in coconut milk is called rendang, and is infused with star anise, lemongrass, cinnamon, cardamom and tamarind. Spice traders introduced the dish to Jamaicans, who changed the name to "Rundown," customizing it with turmeric, allspice, thyme and Scotch bonnet chiles of the region.

For an Indian spin, simmer vegetables, curry spices and beans in coconut milk and finish with lemon juice and cilantro or mint, and you can't miss.

Exotic, versatile coconut milk adds a real flavor punch to the simplest of dishes. And while you eat, just thinking about those swaying palm trees can brighten a cold night in Minnesota.

Red Curry Tofu Stew Over Brown Rice

Serves 8.

Note: Thanks to prepared red curry paste and canned coconut milk, this curry comes together in a snap. Be sure to read the ingredients on the curry paste, as some brands are not vegetarian. Find the curry paste at most supermarkets with Asian foods. For authentic flavor, use kaffir lime leaves or fresh lemongrass (either six lime leaves or half a stalk of lemongrass in place of the lime zest mentioned below). From Robin Asbell.

• 1 c. brown rice

• 1 (14-oz.) can coconut milk

• 2 tbsp. red curry paste, or more to taste (see Note)

• 1 tbsp. fresh ginger root, chopped

• 1 1/2 c. vegetable stock

• 2 tbsp. soy sauce

• 1/2 medium lime, plus zest pared off it in strips (the peel without the white pith)

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 2 c. diced (1/2-in. cubes) sweet potato (about 11 oz.)

• 2 c. chopped cabbage

• 14 oz. firm tofu, drained and cut in 1/2 in. cubes

• 2 large green onions, thinly sliced

• 1/2 c. fresh cilantro leaves, slivered


In a 1-quart pot, bring 2 cups water to a boil over high heat. Add the rice and return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and let cook for about 35 to 40 minutes. When all the water is absorbed, let stand, covered, off the heat, until time to serve.

In a large pot, warm the coconut milk over medium heat to melt, then add the curry paste. (If you usually order "hot" at a restaurant, add another tablespoon.) Mash the curry paste with a spatula or fork to mix well, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the ginger, vegetable stock, soy sauce, lime zest pieces and salt. Reserve the rest of lime half.

Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, and add the sweet potato, cabbage and tofu, then gently stir to mix without crushing the tofu. When the liquids are boiling, reduce the heat to medium, for a strong simmer, and cook for about 25 to 30 minutes to thicken the liquids and soften the vegetables. Remove the lime zest strips before serving. Squeeze the reserved lime into the pan and stir it in, adding a little at a time, to taste.

Serve the tofu curry over brown rice in low bowls. Sprinkle with green onions and cilantro.

Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of "Big Vegan," "The Whole Grain Promise" and "Great Bowls of Food." Find her at robinasbell.com.