MY LIFE IN OKRA

I’m about as biased as they come, but I think today’s guest blogger is pretty swell.  It’s my pleasure today to turn Blue Jean Gourmet over to Jill! –Nishta


I’ve eaten okra my whole life mainly because it has been a staple in my parents’ vegetable garden since, well, forever.  There it would stand – at least a full row of it, head high or more – in all its fibrous, stinging, yellow-blossomed glory.  The hotter the summer sun, the taller the okra and the more it needed picking.  It seemed to me, as a kid assigned the task of helping my mother gather garden vegetables everyday, that you could actually see the okra pods growing in their place on the stalk, they grew so fast.

I made my way down the row protected by a long-sleeve shirt and garden gloves, armed with a paring knife.  I bent the stalks down, cut the pods at their stems and dropped them into a 5-gallon bucket.  On any given day, the bucket would be at least half-full by row’s end, and I would do it all again the next day.   Do the math; we had a lot of okra.

I swore once I became an adult I wouldn’t sweat out my substance plowing, tilling, weeding and hoeing gardens or picking vegetables in the bald open sun.  But, here I am, ensconced in middle-age, growing year-round vegetables in our Zone 9 backyard.  And this time of year, after the beans and tomatoes and squash and cucumbers have all burnt up, the okra are just hitting their stride.  I have only a few plants, and they are a dwarf variety that don’t grow over 5 feet tall.  But, there they are every day – the feathery yellow blossoms, the long pods ready for harvesting, and the little buds behind them waiting to grow into their place the next day or so.

I enjoy okra prepared several ways, but my favorites are fried and pickled.   Both of them mitigate – or negate ourtight – the slime factor that sours many people toward this unique vegetable. Fried okra is a southern staple and many people swear by their family’s version of it.  I am no different; I claim without reservation that my mother’s fried okra recipe and technique (used also by her sisters and sisters-in-law, and which is now mine) is the best fried okra possible in our earth’s time/space continuum.  The pickled okra is a recipe I got somewhere along the way years ago and have adapted to my own peppery tastes.

Between the two of them – hot fried okra served on paper towelled dinner platters and spicy pickled okra pods served ice cold as happy hour fare – you’ve got late summer covered.

BILLIE JEAN’S FRIED OKRA


ingredients & tools:

a “mess” of okra pods  (anywhere from 15 pods 3-4″ long each to a full 5-gallon bucket full)

salt & pepper (although any of the salt-free seasoning blends can work)

flour (a cup or more depending on how much okra you have)

buttermilk (a half cup or more – plain sour yogurt cut with water would work too)

frying oil (vegetable, canola or peanut – enough so that the okra floats slightly in the skillet)

a paper grocery sack (a plastic bag will do)

a large slotted spoon

After rinsing, cut the okra crossways into pieces no larger than the end of your thumb.   Discard the heads.  NOTE: if your knife doesn’t easily slice the okra, the okra is “old” or “hard” and not fit to eat.  Toss it in the compost or trash.

In a bowl, combine the sliced okra, salt & pepper to taste, and enough buttermilk to thinly coat all the okra.  Stir well.  No buttermilk should pool at the bottom of the bowl.  When done right at this stage, it will look like a slimy, sticky mess.

Add at least a cup of flour to a paper bag.  Drop in the okra (no more than a double handful if you’re frying a large batch – you’ll have to fry in stages, if so).  Fold the sack top closed and shake well, holding the bag from the top as well as supporting it on the bottom.  Make sure all the okra is covered evenly in flour.  Set the okra bag aside.

In a skillet or frying pan, heat the oil to medium-high to almost high heat.  Test for frying readiness with a single piece of okra.  When the oil is ready, use your fingers to slightly drop clumps and pieces of the okra into the oil.  Just ease them in, moving them with the slotted spoon only minimally to make room.   Here is the key:  Don’t mess with it at all!  Let it sit frying in the oil – don’t move it around or stir it.  Just let it sit.

When the okra starts to brown underneath, gently – GENTLY – use a slotted spoon (and maybe a second spoon) to turn it over in the oil.  Do this as quickly as possible, but in a way that disturbs the okra the least.  When the okra is fully browned (only another minute or so usually), turn off the heat and begin taking it out onto a platter double lined with paper towels.   Don’t pat it – just let it sit for a minute or two to cool and to lose oil.

Eat with your fingers like popcorn.  Add more salt if needed.  Try not to go face down in it.  Share with others instead.

EASY PICKLED OKRA


ingredients & tools:

a quart jar with ring and lid

enough okra pods to fill the quart jar tightly packed

2-3 garlic cloves

2 sprigs of fresh dill (or a tablespoon of dried ground dillweed)

2-3 hot peppers (fresh or dried)

1 cup vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/8 cup salt

Rinse the okra and peel the garlic cloves.  Scrub the jar, ring and lid and rinse in very hot water from the tap. When the jar cools enough to touch, pack the jar with whole okra pods stood upright.  Pack in the dill, garlic cloves and peppers as well.  If using dried ground dillweeed, just spoon it over the top once everything is packed in.  Make sure nothing in the jar protrudes up beyond the lower edge of the lip of the jar.

In a boiler pot, add the water, vinegar and salt to make the brine.  Bring to a boil.

Pour the boiling brine into the packed jars.  Make sure nothing in the jar is left uncovered.  Seal the jars tightly.  Wait a week to open.  Best served cold after refrigeration.

Cauliflower, squash, cucumbers, banana peppers, long beans and carrots can also be pickled this way.

Dr. Jill Carroll is a public intellectual who speaks internationally on topics of world religion, religious tolerance, & religion and public life.  She grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana.  In addition to writing her own blog for the Houston Chronicle, she is Nishta’s spouse and the food stylist for Blue Jean Gourmet.

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CHILAQUILES

Say it with me…chee-lah-KEE-lehs.

Being a book worm, English teacher, & general language nerd means I have a pretty decent vocabulary.  But there have been times—many an embarrassing time, in fact—when I have run across a word that I know the meaning of but have NO idea how to say aloud.  Like at a restaurant, for example.

I hate feeling like an ignorant dweeb when I want to order a dish but don’t know how to pronounce it.  Luckily, I find that a gentle shrug and point at the menu generally results in help from a good waiter or waitress.

Once I learned how to say “chilaquiles,” I was all over ‘em.  This simple and satisfying Mexican dish is a easy to make for a crowd on weekend , and it also makes an excellent breakfast-for-dinner.  You don’t have to top your chilaquiles off with a farm egg fried in bacon fat, but I did.

CHILAQUILES

This chilaquiles recipe is of my own making, and may or may not pass an authenticity test, but it’s damn tasty.


ingredients:

corn tortillas
red or green salsa

Cut tortillas into strips or wedges.  Heat a little vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet until very hot, almost smoking.  Add enough tortilla pieces to cover the bottom of the pan and cook on both sides until crisp.  If working in batches, keep cooked pieces warm in a low oven.  Set cooked tortilla strips aside while frying the rest of the rest in batches.

Once you’ve worked through all of your tortillas, return them all to the skillet over low heat and pour in salsa so it nearly covers the tortilla strips.  Simmer for a minute or two, then serve with as many extras as you see fit.

extras:

beans of your choice—black, pinto, refried
chopped bacon, chorizo, or veggie crumbles
queso fresco or other cheese
diced onions
cilantro
fried egg

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ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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SWEET SUMMER CORN

Sweet summer corn (swoon)
Plus butter and a hot pan,
Herbs, salt; happiness.

That’s pretty much all there is to this. It’s simple and bright, pairs perfectly with burgers and grilled steaks, and takes about fifteen minutes to make. What are you waiting for?

CARAMELIZED CORN WITH FRESH HERBS
adapted from The Wednesday Chef

I polled my friends when I made all three incarnations of this dish to see if we could determine which herb was the favorite—but there was no clear majority! So I’m afraid you may have to try all three yourself to see which one you like best.  I know, I know, the hardship.

4 ears sweet summer corn
4 T butter
¼ cup fresh basil, mint, or sage, chopped
salt

First, prep the corn. I like to do this over a newspaper-covered counter, to catch the silks. Remove each ear from its husks and slide its silky strings out of the way. Holding the “handle” end of each cob, carefully cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife.

Melt the butter in a wide pan over medium-high heat. Add the corn and stir until you begin to hear popping & spluttering. Don’t be alarmed! This is what you want. Watch and continue to stir as the kernels brown, about 10-12 minutes total.

Remove the corn from the heat, sprinkle in the salt. Divide in two or three, if necessary, then stir in fresh herbs. Serve hot.

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MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

A day or two after news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill broke, I spotted beautiful, wild-caught Gulf shrimp on sale at my neighborhood grocery store—fat, never frozen, $5.99/lb.  I bought 5 pounds, suspecting that it would be a while before I saw such beautiful Gulf seafood at such an amazing price again.  Little did I know, right?

I really have no idea how to respond to something like this.  Clearly, I take for granted that, in our world of obscenely rapid technological advancement, we should be able to solve this problem.  How is it that we don’t know how to fix it?  And what is it that I should be doing, other than feeling really, really depressed and making donations to help the humans and wildlife affected by the spill?

There’s no neat little conclusion to this post, just that all of this damn oil is, among other things, another notch in my mental belt of wondering what the proper balance is between apathy and obsession.  How much time should I spend in my, let’s face it, really comfortable life, thinking about all of the shitty things happening all over the world at any given moment?  And is there some hierarchy of disaster, things I should care about more than others?  And where does all of my care and concern go, if I do choose to exert it?

Choosing our positions along these blurry lines is a matter of personal ethics and conscience, and I like to think that thinking rigorously through my positions is at least worth something.  Part of my job as a teacher is getting my students to care about something other than themselves, and convincing them that by engaging with the world, they alter it.  But sometimes I wonder if I’m not just setting them up for disappointment.

Last weekend, I thawed half of the shrimp I had purchased in April and cooked them simply, with traditional Indian spices and over high heat until they pinked and firmed.  My house was pleasantly swollen with friends and loved ones, who fought over the last shrimp and left the tails scattered in shallow bowls.  Maybe, at times, that’s the best we can do, and that’s not so bad.

MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

We ate these straight-up, with raita drizzled on top or alongside as a dipping sauce, counterbalancing the heat of the shrimp perfectly.  The dish didn’t seem to suffer for lack of a “vehicle,” but surely they would be delicious tucked into a pita, wrapped in some naan, or served atop some rice or couscous.

ingredients:

2 ½ lb. Gulf shrimp, peeled & deveined
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 tsp. coriander powder
1 tsp. cumin powder
½ tsp. turmeric powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less if you’re heat-shy)
vegetable oil
salt

special equipment: a heavy-bottomed pot with high sides & a lid

Swirl some oil into the pot, letting it heat until the oil shimmers (medium-high on the stove).  Throw in the mustard seeds and turmeric, then immediately bring the lid down to cover the pot.  There will be spluttering!  Shake the pan and let it sit on the heat for a minute or two more, then remove from the heat.

Add the shrimp to the pot—all of them if they fit—then return to the burner.  Using a large spoon, gently turn the shrimp regularly to ensure even cooking.  Toss in the remaining spices, including a teaspoon of salt.  After 3-4 minutes, turn the stove down to medium, letting the residual heat finish the shrimp.

Continue to turn the shrimp until they have all pinked and are just cooked.  Remove immediately from the pot so they do not overcook.  Taste for salt and serve warm.

CUCUMBER RAITA

You can also add a finely chopped Serrano pepper if you’d like a little fire in your raita.

ingredients:

2 cups plain, thick yogurt
2-3 small cucumbers, peeled & grated
¼ cup buttermilk
¼ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 T cumin powder*
juice of 2 lemons
salt, to taste

Squeeze the grated cucumbers in a cheesecloth or paper towel to drain the excess liquid, then combine them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients.  Stir.  Thin with a bit more buttermilk if necessary.

Raita will keep in the fridge with an airtight container for a few days.

*If you like, toast your own cumin seeds until fragrant and then grind them.  They will add great depth of flavor.

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GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS & HARD LEMONADE

As Jill recently announced to the whole world in a blog post, we read the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July.  Geeky, I know, but we’re both so moved and inspired by our nation’s founding document—seriously, have you ever read it?  It’s grand and angry and beautiful.  They just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Of course, once you start reading the Declaration of Independence aloud on the Fourth of July, it’s not like you can quit.  These rituals take on their own weight and significance; they transform into tradition.  And me?  I’m like that dude from Fiddler on the Roof. I love me some tradition.

So share away—what are your Fourth of July traditions?  Or, for friends up north, Canada Day traditions?

GREEN LENTIL HUMMUS
barely adapted from Food & Wine

Admittedly, this play on hummus is not the most beautiful color in the whole wide world…but it tastes delicious, so try and look past that, would you?  If you’re in a chickpea hummus rut, give this one a whirl—lentils are good for you!

ingredients:

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup green lentils
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
3 garlic cloves*
¼ cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh cilantro
1 tsp. ground cumin
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste

optional:

cayenne pepper, for heat
sweet or smoked paprika, for garnish

Bring the stock and lentils to a boil with the bay leaf & cinnamon stick.  Cover and simmer over low heat until the lentils are cooked through, about 45 minutes.  Uncover and turn up the heat, to cook away the excess liquid, another 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let the lentils cool.

In a food processor or blender, combine the lentils, garlic, tahini, cilantro, cumin, lemon juice, & a pinch of cayenne (if using).  Process until a paste begins to form, then drizzle in the olive oil slowly.  Mix until smooth, then add salt and taste-test.

Serve the hummus with pita chips and/or vegetables, sprinkling paprika on top and drizzling with a little extra olive oil.  Make a day ahead & keep in an airtight container in the fridge.

*I used garlic I had previously roasted and it added a wonderful flavor to the hummus.

HARD LEMONADE

A while back, the lovely Julie van Rosendaal of Dinner with Julie wrote a sweet blog post about an impromptu lemonade stand, including a recipe for this lemon syrup, promising that it made the perfect lemonade easily achievable.  My thoughts immediately turned to the possibilities of a “grownup” lemonade-leave it to my devilish mind.

I used frozen strawberries as “ice cubes” because we keep a giant bag from Costco in the freezer, but feel free to sub in frozen raspberries or blueberries, or make your own ice cubes with mint leaves suspended inside, for a color & flavor twist.

for one serving, I used 2 T lemon syrup, topped with fizzy water, a shot of vodka, & a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

for a pitcher, I’d recommend 1 cup lemon syrup & 1 ½ cups vodka, fill to the top with fizzy water & the juice of 4 lemons.

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