July 30, 2010
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.