Top | The Produce Diaries
(post, Emily Horton)
At markets throughout the Southeast, you find okra piled into two-toned heaps of mossy green and magenta, so vibrant that passing it up feels downright ungrateful. I never do. Instead, as okra reaches its seasonal peak in late summer, I start worrying about whether I’ll find the time to cook everything I have planned for it. This might sound loony to anyone whose sole experience with the stuff has involved a fryer bubbling with peanut oil, or who, disenchanted with okra’s mucilaginous tendencies, just can’t get past eating it any way except fried. And yet, frying okra is probably the last thing I would do with it. I’m not saying I’d shun a plate of those crisp, crunchy little nuggets, but I think it does okra a disservice to obscure its elusive sweet, nutty flavor with all that batter and oil. [%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Fresh green okra pods."] One of my favorite preparations for okra is also incredibly simple: grilled. Quick, high heat renders okra tender, crunchy, and, if you use a charcoal grill, deliciously smoky. Grilling also deters the release of those sticky juices that seem to offend so many people. Thread whole okra onto skewers, brush with oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and then grill over medium-hot coals for three or four minutes, turning once. They’re delicious as is, but fantastic drizzled with a punchy aïoli. For those who really want their okra fried, however, I’ve come up with a lighter, less labor-intensive version, with no oil splatters to clean up. Cut okra pods into 1/2-inch slices, then toss with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, red pepper flakes if you like a little extra heat, and enough stone-ground coarse cornmeal to coat each slice (the cut pieces should release enough juices for the cornmeal to stick). Sauté in a bit of peanut or sunflower oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over high heat until lightly browned in spots and crunchy, usually about four to five minutes. When you’re buying fresh okra, look for tender pods without any dark spots; they should be bright green or even fuchsia-colored. Some cooks maintain that the larger specimens have more flavor, but I prefer smaller pods, no greater than three to four inches in length, which are less fibrous and small enough to cook whole. And when in doubt, try one on the spot: Really top-notch okra should be delicious raw. Yes, raw.