Inspiration: What’s in your shopping basket?

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I was unloading my shopping bags onto the counter and loved the pile with all the shades of greens, reds, and orange. I had just grabbed a lot of produce that looked good at Essex Street Market in the LES putting together a loose meal plan in my mind as I went along. I got okra, Persian cucumbers, poblanos, cilantro, radishes, limes, nopal cactus paddles, red chiles, and sour oranges. It looked like a summer still life, and it makes being (mostly) vegetarian exciting when one has beautiful fruits and vegetables to cook with.

So far, we’ve had cilantro, citrus, and chiles in ceviche, crisp radish and cucumber snacks, and I’m working on nopal and poblano tacos. I’ll probably roast the okra with chipotle and do some vegetable chiles rellenos.

It got my thinking: how do most people shop and where do you get your inspiration? Do you plan ahead and then shop or look for what’s good and plan your meals from there? Do you research before you buy a new strange vegetable or do you buy and then look for what to do with it?

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Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.