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).

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Country Fried Steak- Southern Food Challenge 3

I never said this was going to be pretty. There are no glamour shots in this post. It is impossible to make country fried steak look like anything but a big plate of brown. While country fried steak is doubtless very tasty, a feast for the eyes it is not. I think that may be a significant part of why country fried steak has never been in heavy rotation in my kitchen. (That and the “country”, “fried”, and  “steak” parts.) My gene pool is neck-deep in artists so I’m practically genetically hardwired to “first, eat with your eyes.”

 

 

Growing up, I don’t actually remember ever eating country fried steak. After I got married, I started making it occasionally, because despite the fact that he introduced me to kimchi and tom yum soup and sushi and cioppino, I married a guy who occasionally craves things his mother or grandmother cooked. His culinary guilty pleasures tend to contain trans-fats. His mom could give Paula Deen a run for her money in butter usage; she makes a mean tuna noodle casserole; she sometimes country-fries things; She’s not afraid of Crisco. So for love, I learned to fry. Sometimes.

When I started looking for actual recipes for country fried steak, I discovered that there  are a couple of significant variations: I have always dredged, pan-fried and then covered and cooked the meat in a sort of self-made brown gravy. A lot of recipes almost deep fry the meat, then make a cream or milk gravy separately and  pour it over the top when it is served, very much like a weiner schnitzel. It’s interesting then that that version has its roots in Texas with its significant influx of German immigrants in the early 19th century.

There is also some variation in the name: is it “country-fried” or “chicken-fried”? None less than John T. Edge of  Southern Foodways Alliance weighed in in the NY Times Diner’s Journal saying that “Country fried steak is, usually, battered and fried beef, smothered in gravy and simmered until solid crust and liquid gravy fuse. It’s a pan-Southern dish.”

Anyway, getting back to the issue of aesthetics: I used red onions. It was the best I could do.

 

Country Fried Steak

a general outline


Tenderized beef round steaks, about 1 per person

1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned (to taste) with

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

pinch of cayenne

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Oil for frying

Milk , about a cup to dredge the meat and 1/2 cup for the gravy

water or broth to surround but not cover the meat

dash Worchestershire sauce

 

 

In a heavy skillet, slowly saute’ the sliced onions in about 1 tablespoon of the oil until they are a sweet softly wilted tangle. Remove from the  pan and hold for later.

Meanwhile, dip each piece of meat into the milk, then dredge it in the seasoned flour. Cover the meat completely, but dust off any extra that isn’t well adhered. As each piece is covered, set it aside on a plate for 10 minutes or so before frying them. The flour will begin to absorb the milk and juice from the meat and will get a bit of a crust.

Once the onions are cooked and the meat is all dredged, add a couple more tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat it until it shimmers slightly. Lay the meat in the pan and fry until both sides are golden brown. Scatter the onions back over the pan, pour in the 1/2 cup of milk, enough water or broth to surround but not cover the meat, and that splash of Worchestershire sauce. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan with a heavy lid and keep the heat on low for about 15 minutes until the meat is very tender and the gravy has thickened.