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The okra accident
(post, Megan Scott)
As with many stories of great innovation, I had nothing particular in mind when I planted a patch of okra in my garden this year. I simply knew that okra was one of the few crops that could be planted without worry of drought or infestation in this climate. I was told that it would yield no matter what, and so I chose the most likely-sounding candidate from my seed catalogue: Hill Country Red Okra.
Having lost most of my garden last year to drought, extreme heat, and insects, I was determined to see at least one crop to fruition this year, even if the crop in question was something I wasn't entirely sure how to use. It was one of those act-now-think-later scenarios that often end in catastrophe, but that sometimes, serendipitously, results in something marvelous.
Okra is something of a maligned vegetable, almost exclusively relegated to the deep fryer, to pickling, or to pots of gumbo. Not that fried okra isn't a mighty fine thing. In fact, okra lends itself especially well to frying. But you have to ask yourself why the current trend towards heightened creativity in food hasn't extended itself to okra.
[%image youth float=right width=400 caption="Young okra."]
In spite of its being a marvelous summer producer and a close relative of hibiscus, you won't find articles in glossy food magazines about the merits of okra, nor will you be likely to find it on the menu of the new, hip neighborhood restaurant. A few older cookbooks list some lackluster solutions for using an okra overload, but, after reading these unenthusiastic scribbles, I came to ask myself why, if even the homely cauliflower can have a resurgence, okra continues to be the red-headed stepchild of the vegetable world.
Okra's downfall is the selfsame trait that makes it so useful. It has a mucilaginous inner membrane that is conducive to thickening soups and sauces. However, most people simply refer to this quality as "slimy," and the last time I checked, "slimy" is still considered negative.
To my mind, though, okra's wonderful flavor overrules its unfortunate gooey tendencies, and the best way to simply taste okra is to try it raw.
I was 20 years old before I tasted raw okra. My family is solidly in the fried-okra camp, with the occasional stewed-okra-and-tomato dish to round things out a bit. So, as a child, I knew okra almost solely as a fried food. One hot afternoon in the garden changed all that. I found that raw okra has an almost addictive quality to it — crisp, flavorful, and easy to eat. In fact, raw okra has come to be one of my favorite summer flavors.
To eat okra this way, you need to pick or purchase it reasonably small — no longer than 3 to 4 inches, about 3/4 inch in diameter. As okra grows larger, it becomes stringy, tough, and spiny. Bigger isn't always better.
[%image ranch float=left width=400 caption="Fresh okra tastes fabulous with buttermilk ranch dressing."]
In this way, okra makes a fabulous addition to a summer crudité platter alongside a simple dip such as a tart, homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. It can also be part of a bagna cauda spread. And do I need to tell you that okra makes, as do most vegetables, a fabulous vehicle for soft goat cheese or hummus?
I wish I could give you a solid recipe for okra slaw. As I brainstormed for this post, my highest hopes for okra involved a crisp and tangy slaw. Unfortunately, my tests were so gelatinous as to be almost . . . disturbing. In fact, to say it was like watching horror movie special effects is about accurate.
I found that if you cut the okra, cauterize the slices in a hot skillet (not nonstick) until slightly charred, and then compose the slaw, the gummy effects of the okra are minimized. However, having to go to that kind of effort to put together an edible okra slaw just went against my raising. My advice is to stick to cabbage.
[%image bhindi float=right width=400 caption="Bhindi kurkuri, ready for frying."]
Cooking okra well requires almost no finesse. The best techniques for avoiding slimy-okra syndrome involve dry heat. Roasting and grilling are two unsung methods for coaxing a lot of flavor from okra spears while discouraging sliminess. Simply toss the okra, halved lengthwise or not, in a simple marinade, and grill or roast over high heat.
One of my new favorite methods for coping with abundant okra is a quick and hot sauté. The edges of the thinly sliced okra begin to carbonize and add rich flavor to the dish. Add some onions, garlic, a jalapeño, and garam masala, and you have a marvelous side dish.
Actually, okra and Indian food are made for one another. Where American cuisine falls short when it comes to applications for okra, Indian cuisine shines. One popular Indian okra dish, bhindi kurkuri, involves tossing sliced okra with spices and chickpea flour and then frying the slices to golden perfection. For a textural contrast, serve with raita and chopped cilantro.
[%image fritter float=left width=400 caption="Okra fritters."]
Finally, consider the fritter. This recipe is directly inspired by Scott Peacock, the former chef at the Watershed restaurant in Atlanta. In my opinion, one of the most satisfying treatments for peak-season summer vegetables is the fritter. By combining flavorful produce, a simple batter, and a hot skillet, you harness the natural sugars in the vegetables to create a browned, crisp homage to the season.
The same technique may be applied to corn, grated and pressed squash or zucchini, minced eggplant, peppers, and many other summer vegetables. The resulting fritters are excellent served up with a simple sauce, such as a homemade ranch dressing, or a basic salsa fresca and a little sour cream.
Okra may not be the most inspiring ingredient to work with at first glance, but it happens to be remarkably versatile and requires only a little finesse to coax out its wonderful flavor. With a little experimentation and an open mind, you may find yourself saying more often than you'd expect, "Please pass the okra."