Joanna Blythman, guardian.co.uk, recipe by Rosie Sykes, Updated: April 19, 2013 13:48 IST
Coconut oil is arguably the healthiest oil to use in frying, and it can transform the most humdrum of dishes.
Forget scented candles - there's nothing quite like the aroma of gently warming coconut oil to transport your mind to a Mutiny on the Bounty island with lapping waves, golden sand and swaying palms.
Don't buy the odourless, flavourless "pure" type that has been industrially refined. Go for the raw, cold-pressed, virgin sort. Its fragrance and tropical opulence can elevate even a humdrum weekday dal into something special.
Coconut oil lends a convincing authenticity to a whole host of Asian dishes, from beef rendang to Thai green curry, but its use needn't be restricted to oriental recipes. It's fantastic for frying fish, for instance, or for sauteing onions for a rice or grain-based pilaf.
Why is coconut oil good for me?
White and solid at room temperature, coconut oil is slower to oxidise and less damaged and chemically altered by heat than other cooking oils. So it's arguably the healthiest oil to fry with.
Coconut oil is one of the best sources of heart-healthy medium-chain fatty acids, notably lauric acid, which enhances the immune system through its antiviral and antibacterial effects. These acids also stimulate metabolism, and some research suggests they can aid weight loss.
Where to buy and what to pay?
Coconut oil isn't cheap, but then a small amount makes a big impact. You'll find attractively inexpensive coconut oil in Asian groceries and Chinese supermarkets, but usually only the industrially refined sort. Look for it in wholefood shops where 500g of cold-pressed, virgin, organic coconut oil costs £8.50-£10.50. It stays fresh for ages, so if you can afford a big jar it should be much better value.• Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate, £16.99). To order a copy for £11 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Coconut and parsnip cake
Parsnip and coconut have some similar flavour notes, so they compliment each other well in this dairy-free cake. It's great with coconut icing, and delicious warm with coconut ice-cream.
For the cake175g coconut oil, warm enough to spread200g caster sugar100g soft brown sugarZest and juice of 1 lemon3 large eggs at room temperature, beaten250g parsnip, peeled and coarsely grated50g desiccated coconut250g self-raising flour1
½ tsp baking powderFlavourless oil to grease the cake tin
For the icing20g desiccated coconut150g coconut oil, warm enough to spread150g icing sugar1 tbsp lemon juice with 1 tbsp warm water1
Preheat the oven to 160C/320F/gas mark 3. Spread out the dessicated coconut for the icing out on a baking tray, and place into the warming oven until golden brown. Leave to cool.2
Grease a 20cm cake tin. Line the base with baking paper. Put the coconut oil for the cake in a mixing bowl and beat until soft and light. Add the sugars and lemon zest and blend together. Add the eggs gradually; if the mixture starts to curdle, add a bit of flour. Carefully fold in the parsnip and coconut, then the flour and baking powder. Loosen with the lemon juice.3
Turn the mixture into a tin and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until an inserted knife comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes then turn out of the tin to cool completely.4
Ice the cake when cold. Beat the oil in a mixer and gradually add the sugar, beating with each addition. Once smooth and thick, drizzle in the lemon juice mixture. Beat for 2 more minutes, leave to sit for 10 minutes, then spread over the cake. Once iced, sprinkle over the toasted coconut. Give the icing 30 minutes to set before eating.
• Rosie Sykes is head chef of Fitzbillies (fitzbillies.com) and co-author of The Kitchen Revolution (Ebury Press, £27.50). To order a copy for £19.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian