I missed out on a lot of foods growing up. My mother was not much of a cook, to say they least. She cooked a limited number of dishes —canned beet salad, mock chicken legs (don’t ask), Caesar salad with dressing from a bottle and a liberal shake of garlic powder, steak. That was about it. Her palate leans towards the lean and salad-y. No creamy, starchy things like real
macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, fettuccine alfredo, or tapioca pudding ever made it to our table.
Which might explain why I’ve been making up for lost time on the starchy-creamy front ever since I was old enough to cook. Sometimes I even taunt her during our weekly phone conversations with stories of creamy dishes I make like Quick and Creamy Lasagna For Two, just to get a cream and carb-loathing rise out of her. (Heh heh.)
One of the last things on my starchy-creamy discovery frontier has been tapioca. It’s been as foreign to me as tuna noodle casserole is for as long as I can remember. That is until recently, when I came across tapioca pearls at my favorite Asian grocery story. Bags and bags of tiny pearls, large pearls, translucent multi-colored zig zags were stacked high in a beguiling section of the store full of other exotica like panadus leaf extract, grass jelly and basil seed drink. What had I been missing all these years?
I had to bring some home to find out. But since I’d never even touched the stuff before, I was a blank slate of sorts. I turned to the lovely Nancy McDermott’s excellent cookbook, Quick and Easy Vietnamese and took a gander at her treatment of tapioca in her recipe for Warm Banana-Coconut Pudding with Tapioca Pearls for tips, and took it from there.
Since tapioca by itself can be kind of dull, I topped the coconut creamy mess (which just so happens to be vegan) with a tropical fruit partner: ripe pineapple caramelized with vanilla bean, star anise, cinnamon, and dark rum. The results are not anything close to the thick, dairy-laden tapioca pudding I missed out on as a kid growing up in Wisconsin. But it is creamy, soothing, and super delicious. So I don’t mind so much that I only recently discovered the creamy goodness of tapioca; I can eat it like a kid now, and that’s good enough for me.
Creamy Coconut Tapioca Pudding with Spiced Pineapple
Serves 4 (with some leftovers for breakfast!)
3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons small tapioca pearls (not instant tapioca)
1/2 vanilla bean
2/3 cup sugar
One 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
1 generous pinch salt
2 tablespoons butter
One 2-pound pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 vanilla bean
2 star anise
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Gradually stir in the tapioca, reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring frequently (especially on the bottom of the pan), until the tapioca have begun to soften and have tiny white dots in the center of each pearl, 10 minutes.
Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the sticky dark seeds from pod. Add pod, seeds, sugar, coconut milk, and salt to pan, continue to cook over low, stirring frequently, until the tapioca are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a large metal bowl and chill until cool and thickened, 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the pineapple. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the sticky black seeds. Heat the butter (or 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, if making the dessert vegan) over medium high heat in a large saute pan until melted. Add the vanilla seeds and pod, pineapple, star anise, and cinnamon stick to the pan. Saute until the fruit begins to caramelize, 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the rum and sugar. Return to medium heat and simmer until the juices are thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes.
Spoon the tapioca into 4 pudding dishes or high ball glasses. Top with the warm pineapple and serve. (Leftover tapioca and pineapple can be covered and kept in the refrigerator separately for up to 1 week. Reheat the pineapple briefly. You may wish to thin the pudding with a bit of coconut milk or dairy milk to loosen the texture.)
(all photos copyright Gregor Torrence 2009)