Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sweet Tea's Almost Healthy Fried Okra


Late summer, and a Southern girl’s thoughts turn to okra. O, O, Okra! Most succulent vegetable, and most maligned! How fleeting your tender youth, how woody your old age!

Okra came to the U.S. From West Africa and claims a seat in the pantheon of Southern cooking , but is often misunderstood and derided by those who didn’t know it growing up. It’s the grits of vegetables. Like grits, it can be cooked badly but is easy to cook well, and worth the little effort.

A Few Okra Tips:

  • Buy it fresh if you can; frozen isn’t good for much but gumbo. There's terrific okra at $4/lb. at the Grand Army Plaza Green Market; for some reason the okra at the Food Coop is not so hot. Chose young, small pods. Older pods can be quite tough, though some varieties stay more tender. Try to avoid ones with dark scratch marks showing age. (Okra can be very prickly when raw, so careful as you sort through the bin.)
  • Okra gets slimy when its insides get wet. This is good if you’re making gumbo, but if it bothers you, try stir-frying whole pods with garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and other spices you like.
  • If you're cooking okra wet (for stews, etc.), add it late in the game. Over-boiled okra is not a good thing.

The most famous use for okra is gumbo — the word gumbo actually comes from the Bantu word for okra — but nothing says summer to me like fresh, salty, fried okra. Unfortunately, nothing says “bad news” to me like the cardiology ward. Fear not; I’ve found a delicious middle ground:

Sweet Tea’s Almost Healthy Fried Okra


The Players

Corn (1/2 - 1 ear per person)
Okra (small handful per person)
Tomatoes (1 big one per person, or equiv.)
Onion/Scallion (1/4 c onion or 1/2 c mild scallion, diced small)
Fresh Mint (1 tablespoon, minced)
Baking powder (optional)
High-temperature oil (canola, peanut, etc.)
Kosher salt
Black pepper

What To Do With ‘Em:

1. Roast or Grill the corn. DON’T SHUCK IT. Just put the whole ears, still in their husks, into the oven or onto the grill. The husk acts as a natural steamer, keeping the kernels crisp, juicy, and sweet. Plus, corn silks pull right off the cooked corn in a sheet without sticking and clinging the way they do when raw.

Corn Porn
Corn Porn

Cook in a 350 degree oven or on hot grill for 35 minutes. When you squeeze the top of the cob through the husk, you should feel the kernels almost break. Let cool somewhat before shucking.

2. While the corn is cooking, cut up the other vegetables. Dice the onion fairly finely, mince the mint, dice the tomato (or quarter cherry or grape tomatoes), and cut the okra crosswise into pieces roughly 1/2 inch long.

All Chopped

When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut the kernels off the cob and break them up a bit. You don’t need to separate every kernel; some variation is nice.

3. Fry the okra. (Disclaimer to my fellow Southerners: this won’t be the kind of fried okra you get at buffets and family-style restaurants, with the thick, puffy breading, but it’s fresher tasting.)
Dredge the okra through a mixture of cornmeal and black pepper. I like to add a little baking powder when I fry, to help the crust along, but to tell the truth, that’s more important with flour-ier frying (like chicken. Mmmm…..). If you like your okra more thoroughly covered, add some white flour to the cornmeal.

You want the okra to be a tiny bit damp so that the cornmeal sticks a bit, but not so wet that the slime gets really going. If the cornmeal isn’t sticking enough — it doesn’t need to be perfect — spritz the okra once or twice with a spray bottle.

Heat a small amount of high-heat oil in a heavy skillet. You’re not deep-frying; a couple tablespoons should do it, depending on your pan size.

When the oil is shimmering hot, toss in the okra. Don’t stir it around right away — the idea is to let the cornmeal cook and stick a bit, not to stir fry. Don’t be afraid of burning it; let it cook for a minute between each stirring until it’s done all over.

Frying the Okra

Frying the Okra
There Will Be Smoke

When it’s done on all sides, cool on a cookie rack or paper towels. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt. (And we all know how liberals love salt.)

4. Combine all ingredients except the okra in a bowl and mix somewhat — it’s okay for each bite of the salad to have a slightly different proportion of ingredients.

Top the salad with the okra, crouton-style. Serve. Repeat as needed before winter comes back.

Ready to Eat


Clockwatcher said...

I love the "okra as crouton" idea! I'll definitely try this, as I love okra and need new ways to prepare it. Thanks! Oh, and I found you on Brooklynian. If you decide to keep posting I'd love to link to you from my blog. All the best to you!

Sweet Tea said...

thanks! isn't okra the greatest? i made some gumbo the other day, and then i got a sore throat -- mmm, spicy tomato plus slippery okra is the perfect food for that.

i grew the two pods pictured alone, but growing okra this far north is a mug's game.

we'd love to be linked. what's your blog?

Nate said...

Wow. This sounds awfully good. I know what I'll be making on Sunday.