Star Ingredient of the Season: Okra
Okra is a great example of a misunderstood vegetable which can be delicious if cooked right and disastrous if cooked wrong. One experience with slimy slices of okra is enough to put people off for life, yet there are cooking methods which really bring out the beauty of this late summer/early fall vegetable. Okra, which is also known as bamia or lady's finger, loves a hot climate and humid weather, so it must feel right at home here in H-town. Found in Southern, African, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines, this vegetable should be bright green with a little bit of fuzz on the surface when perfectly fresh. There are red and purple varieties, too, although they're not as common.
The brighter the stem ends are, the fresher the okra is, although a little browning isn't going to make much difference. Okra can be cooked fast for a crisp result, slow for a tender texture, or even used as a thickening agent in dishes such as gumbo. Okra is low in calories (just 30 calories per 3 1/2-ounce serving) and free of cholesterol and saturated fats. It's rich in vitamins, minerals (especially magnesium, manganese, calcium and iron), antioxidants and dietary fiber.
So What's with the Slime?
Okra holds on to a thick liquid (a.k.a. the slime) to store water in hot climates, and when you cut the okra you will see some. If this is a turnoff for you, grill, fry or sauté the okra to crisp it up, and add acid in the form of tomatoes, citrus or vinegar to counter any gloop. Some recipes call for the okra to be stewed though, and in this case the liquid actually adds body to the dish and thickens it up.
In a Starring Role at: Luby's
The whole fried okra at Luby's is wonderfully crunchy and goes beautifully with the chicken fried steak, blackened chicken or fried haddock. There are plenty of other veggie options if you want healthier sides, such as blue lake green beans or new potatoes, so why not get a selection and enjoy the vegetables family-style? Maybe finish off the meal with the carrot cake or pecan pie. Carrots are vegetables, right?
Recipe: Crunchy Fried Okra
If you want a recipe for super-crispy okra, this one is a classic. The okra is coated in a seasoned egg and cornmeal mixture and then fried. Try this with chicken or fish as a tasty side dish. This recipe is quick and easy to prepare, and makes four generous servings.
1 pound fresh okra
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Canola oil, for frying
First trim the stem ends off the okra, and either leave the pods whole or cut them into pieces. Now beat the eggs with the water in one bowl, and the cornmeal, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper in another bowl. Heat 1/2 to 3/4 inch of oil in a big, heavy pot to between 350 and 375 degrees. Meanwhile toss the okra in the egg mixture and let the excess drip off. Now dip it in the cornmeal mixture and arrange on a baking sheet. By now your oil should be hot enough to sizzle when you add a breadcrumb. If it bubbles up violently, it's too hot. If it doesn't sizzle at all, it's not hot enough. Fry the coated okra in single-layer batches until crispy and golden, then drain on paper towels and serve hot.
To make sure the okra is evenly coated, it is best to use one wet hand to dip it in the egg mixture and one dry hand to dip it in the cornmeal. Also it's important the oil is hot enough for frying, if it's not, you might lose the coating or end up with soggy okra. If you've only tried this vegetable in gumbo, give fried okra a try—its crunchy appeal might really surprise you!
Stay tuned each week to learn more about what's fresh at the market and where you can enjoy the tasty bounty of the season.