Pick of the Month, September ‘08

September 30, 2008

No, it’s not a joke. It’s also not the first time I’ve written a Pick post with just hours in a month to spare. And like times past, the procrastination has occurred while pondering the vegetable and its wonders for most of the month. Ah, me. In a bright, shining future, I will have things so much more together.

As I write, I’m watching Alton Brown wax on about the wonders of beets. Now that’s a veggie that’s worthy of its own post — I’m especially pleased that Alton just showed the food TV world how to pickle the red jewels. But I digress. The subject of today’s post is another — one that I’ve been seeing at our farmer’s market in abundance for most of the month. For weeks now, all the farmers have been displaying overflowing pint baskets of okra, and as I walked past them, they all seemed to scream, “Fry me!” Which is exactly what I’ve done, and exactly what I’m going to encourage you, reader, to do.

But first, let’s just consider okra. It’s true, in the South, we fry it up, like so many other foods. But my earliest memories of okra are all about gumbo; my father’s side of the family is from south Mississippi, where the heavy influence of New Orleans food reigns in local cuisine. Shrimp gumbo, with sausage, served over rice. It wasn’t until I was trying to develop my own recipe for turkey gumbo (from the carcass and leftovers of Thanksgiving dinner) that I realized the role that okra was playing in that creole stew. It’s all about the slime. The gooey stuff that can so easily offend — it’s a polymer-like product of the seed pods — makes a great thickener for soup.

Additionally, not until I began making babyfood for my firstborn did I learn that okra is also packed with things good for you. High in folate, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium — it qualifies as a super green veggie. But that didn’t help me convince my one-year old to eat it. Mixed with applesauce or not.

And, really — it doesn’t sport the ease and versatility of a winter green, or even green beans for that matter. Yes, you can sautee it, pickle it (delicious — and I looked into doing it, but my first canning adventure is something that will have to wait until sometime after the birth of my third child), boil it, etc. It works well stewed with tomatoes or other acidic counterparts (this reportedly cuts down on the sliminess factor). But outside of using it in my yearly post-Turkey-day pot o’ gumbo, I mostly just fry it. It’s so easy to do, and so comforting, one of the true southern foods that I really enjoy making.

This method is adapted from a recipe by Madame Deer-in-Headlights herself, Paula Deen. I saw Alton fry some okra once, but it didn’t look like what I thought fried okra should look like. So I went with Paula. And I have to admit that she did not lead me astray. I’ve changed a few things — mainly to make things a little easier for smaller batches and to avoid using an entire bottle of oil for a side dish (has anyone else noticed the price of canola oil these days?). But you can find the original recipe if you do a quick search for fried okra on the FoodTV website.

This is for about a pound of okra — plenty to serve as a side-dish or appetizer for four people. You’ll want to have some ketchup on hand, too. If you live in a part of the country where okra is hard to come by, even at this time of year, then try it next time it makes an appearance at your local market.

Fried Okra (adapted from recipe from Paula Deen)

  • about a cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound okra, trimmed on both ends and sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • about 1/3 cup buttermilk

Heal oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet (cast-iron works great). The oil should fully coat the bottom of the pan, and be about 1/4″ deep (so use more if necessary). Heat until oil is about 350º on a candy thermometer.

While the oil heats, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the okra and buttermilk. Stir well to coat each piece. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the buttermilk-coated okra to the bowl of cornmeal mixture (let as much buttermilk drain from the okra as possible). Toss all of the okra in the cornmeal, then transfer to a colander placed over a sink or trash can. Shake the colander well, allowing excess coating to sift out.

When the oil is hot, carefully add the okra to the pan. Allow to sit, untouched, for a minute or two, until the bottoms start to turn golden. Carefully turn the pieces so that all sides cook. Once your okra is a nice golden color all around, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Once cooled slightly, taste for seasoning and salt more if necessary.

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