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Updated Southern Cooking:
Okra

John Tullock

Okra is a much-maligned and misunderstood vegetable. Alice Waters, the doyen of modern vegetable cookery, does not even mention it in her cookbook, Chez Panisse Vegetables . James Peterson, prolific author of encyclopedic cooking references on a variety of topics, glibly refers to people “...who have such aversion to things slippery and slimy that they would rather not even think of okra.” He goes on to say, “I don’t have any methods for getting rid of the much feared slipperiness — after all, it’s part of what makes okra okra....” He offers only two recipes, fewer than he provides for salsify. (When was the last time you found that vegetable, also known as “oyster plant” in the produce case?)

As usual, southern cooks come to the rescue. Besides, what do they know of okra in Peterson’s New York City, a place most southerners regard as part of another planet, anyway?

While there are plenty of slippery, slimy okra dishes out there, this delectable seed pod of the hibiscus family, cousin of the South’s beloved cotton, can easily be rendered less gelatinous. There are two “secret” techniques, which may be used individually or together. They are 1) add acid and 2) cook in fat over high heat.

Okra is a weak thickening agent. It will, if added to the classic dish, gumbo, cause the stew to thicken, while itself losing its sliminess. One will need, however, to add either a roux or file powder, in order to achieve the texture most people prefer in gumbo. You cannot do it with okra alone, unless you add an excessive amount, and then you wouldn’t have gumbo, now would you?

Cooking okra in a small amount of fat, such as olive oil, prior to adding it to other ingredients, will result in a non-slimy product. Cut the okra into the pieces desired for the dish you are making. Usually, this means slicing it crosswise into 1/4” to 1” long pieces, discarding the stem end. Make sure you saute the okra pieces at least until they become bright green. More traditional southern recipes call for cooking the okra in fat until some of the pieces start to turn brown. You can saute it, to either degree of doneness, ahead of time. Simply drain the okra on paper towels and keep it in the refrigerator for later use.

Additions of acid, in the form of tomatoes, lemon juice, or vinegar, will also remove the slime. Pickled okra, for example, is available in jars and can be rinsed and used just like fresh okra in soups, stews and casseroles. A southern classic is okra and tomatoes. In this dish the okra is fried briefly, then tomatoes are added, and the whole thing stewed for a while. The result, which can be varied with all sorts of flavoring ingredients, is delicious. The liquid has the consistency of a thin sauce, without a trace of slime, and the okra will retain a satisfying “bite.” Keep the total cooking time under 30 minutes.

This dish perhaps evolved into a classic type of gumbo with the addition of seafood. A base of tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, garlic and seasonings is prepared, reminiscent of a pasta sauce. In this okra is cooked until bright green. Seafood stock is added to create a flavorful stew that is simmered briefly, then stored refrigerated for a few days. An appropriate amount is ladled into a separate pot, today’s freshest seafood is poached in it, and the liquid is thickened with a little file powder. Voila! Seafood gumbo to order. File powder (pronounced FEE-lay) is made from the young, tender leaves of the sassafras tree. Collected in spring, the leaves are dried and ground. Three quarters of a teaspoon of the powder is sufficient to thicken two cups of liquid for the soup, measured before the seafood is added. For example, if you use four cups of liquid in which to poach the seafood, you will need half a tablespoon of file powder.

We southerners prefer to consume okra, however, cooked the same way we like our catfish. Never mind that trendy restaurants offer combinations such as okra with morels. Never mind that some chefs are pairing the lowly catfish with fennel and kumquats. I’ll take mine breaded and fried, please. Fried breaded okra can be a side dish to almost any southern style meal. Try topping jambalaya with it sometime. Or have it with catfish, also breaded and fried. Or serve it as part of a vegetarian Indian meal. Okra seems to like being in spicy dishes.

John’s Fried Okra

Do not wash the okra immediately before cooking it. If it appears dirty when you get it home, rinse it well in a colander, drain thoroughly, and dry with a kitchen towel. Let it sit in a basket at room temperature until you are ready to slice it, and until there is no trace of surface moisture. Wet okra turns slimy as soon as you cut it.

Place about 1/2 cup of all purpose flour in the bottom of a large bowl. Starting at the pointed end, slice the okra pods crosswise into pieces about 1/2 inch long. Discard the stem. Allow the slices to drop into the bowl with the flour as you cut them. When all of the okra is chopped (You need about one cup, or half a pound, for each serving.) toss it in the bowl, adding more flour if necessary, until each piece is completely and evenly coated. Empty the contents of the bowl into a strainer with large holes, such as a deep fry basket or colander. Shake off the excess flour, then return the okra to the bowl and add about 1/2 cup of buttermilk, whole milk, or an egg lightly beaten with 2 teaspoons of water. Buttermilk is traditional. Toss well, pour off any excess liquid that is not absorbed by the flour, and add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of yellow cornmeal. Gently toss the okra in the cornmeal until each piece is evenly coated. Empty the bowl into the strainer again, and shake off the excess breading. The okra may then be transferred to waxed paper, and allowed to rest in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it.

Heat a half inch of vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet, preferably of cast iron. When the oil is very hot but not smoking, add the okra and fry until it begins to brown. Using a slotted spoon, carefully turn the okra so that it browns evenly. This should take only about 15 to 20 minutes. Portions of the okra not completely covered by the breading will turn bright green. Remove the cooked okra with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Keep it warm in a 170 degree oven until ready to serve.

Add some Creole spice mix to the cornmeal if you want to add another layer of flavor the okra. Whooooweeee! Just like down on the Delta!


John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. He also co-owns "Native Sons Nursery," a retail business that specializes in rare ornamental and gourmet vegetable plants.

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