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.

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Sweet sweet peas

Chuck, my across the path garden neighbor, is a smart guy. He figured out that as a gardener, you’re going to be more popular if you show up with your hands full of flowers than zucchini. So every year, he plants a long fence full of sweet peas on the east side of his garden. They come up during the late winter and bloom until it gets really hot, every shade of violet and blue, white, rosy and salmon pink, crimson, and this year a cross-pollinated volunteer of deep purple with crimson-ruffled edges. The breeze from that side of the garden is intoxicating. Chuck takes armloads of sweet peas to work, to his friends, and home to his wife, and sometimes, if I’m at the garden at the right time, he hands me a big blowsy fragrant gorgeous bunch. Sweet!

Why it is good to grow things

M.F.K. Fisher, in An Alphabet for Gourmets, wrote in the chapter “P is for Peas” about her recollection of the best peas she ever ate in her life, plucked from her garden in Switzerland and whisked out of their shells and into a pot of boiling salted water for a matter of mere seconds before being consumed in the open air with her family. It is a beautiful piece, written in her unique sybaritic way that captures the pleasure of a moment that can only be experienced by someone who grows things to eat.

To be living in a time when almost anything in the world can be available at almost anytime – asparagus and strawberries in December, Szechuan peppercorns and ostrich meat in American groceries, Vietnamese pho shops next to Mexican taquerias- is amazing. The breadth of experiences afforded to me is unparalleled. And no mistake, I love to travel, to try new things, to see what’s being eaten all over the world and to live in a culinary melting pot like the Bay area. But it is also a lovely realization that there are specific eating experiences to be had in one’s own backyard that cannot be duplicated or surpassed. To realize and accept that some foods do not travel well, that peas lose their sweetness and turn starchy within hours of picking, is to relax into the moment in a singular way. In surrendering to that imperative, one says “I will bend and pick and feel the muscles in my back. I will stand in the sun and watch the sky change toward evening and meditatively shell peas into my hand and enjoy that rare sweetness in this moment.”

And if fortune smiles and you have a big enough pea patch, or your neighbor gardener hands you a sackful, you rush them into the kitchen like Ms. Fisher did, shell them and blanch them for a second, add a little salt and butter and eat them up. Don’t wait. The moment doesn’t last long.

Mustard Greens

After the interminable rain we’ve had this winter, I finally made it into the garden last week. All of my recent attempts had been foiled by either bucketing rain or hip- deep mud on all of the paths. It turns out that we have a lush crop of grass covering most of our plot, with one corner thick with mustard greens, collard greens, and kale. My basket was pressed down and running over, let me tell you. Fortunately, we love greens in many guises and have been busily eating them up this week. One of my favorite iterations was last Saturday and inspired by a very inspiring friend’s suggestion. I wilted a bunch of the mustard greens and then lightly sautéed them with garlic and olive oil. This went on top of a bowl of Parmesan polenta with some chunks of pork belly I had braised with sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, and Worcestershire sauce and finally, a lightly poached egg. Lovely! The sharp pungency of the greens was the perfect foil to the rich pork belly. The greens also allowed me to feel smugly virtuous while eating what really boils down to bacon, cheese grits, and eggs.

Seeds of hope

Forget robins- my harbinger of Spring is the arrival of the year’s first seed catalog. Mine came this week from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, full of sexy full-color photos of beauties like Rossa Bianca eggplants, Charentais melons, and Southern Night tomatoes. Seed catalogs bring with them the hope of hot sun and warm dirt and fried squash blossoms and  bruschetta. This winter has been a long, gray, and stormy one. I’ve breathed more stuffy indoor air than I ever care to, but the Weather Channel keeps showing images of big pink blobs churning across the country on the weather radar, unabatedly blanketing us with rain, snow, sleet and gloom. But don’t abandon hope. Peruse a Seeds of Change catalog or Park Seeds and let hope arise anew.

Close your eyes, sitting in front of a sunny window if possible. You are outdoors in your yard or garden. Image the pinch of sun on the bridge of your nose and highest planes of the cheeks. There is a bead of sweat that has collected at the top of your spine, about to slip down between your shoulder blades. You  hear a dog bark in the distance, and if your memory banks had any deposits made on the East coast, a blue jay jeering. A bumblebee may come by, loudly bumping and buzzing its way past. If you happen to have an African Blue basil, there will be a constant high-pitched hum emanating from the swarm of honeybees hieing thither and fro. There is a rustle of breeze through the trellised pole beans and as someone has just started up a lawnmower a block or so away, a waft of fuel mixed with fresh mown grass arrives on the same breeze and invades the edges of your senses. The marigolds edging your garden bed are stridently bright orange, yellow and red, their scent an herbal twang. You have a couple of tomato plants, maybe a vining golden pear cherry or a tumescent Cherokee Purple, and as you reach your hands under the branches, feeling for ripe fruit, you brush the velvet covering the leaves and foliage, releasing the spicy/bitter tomato smell. If you’re really lucky, there is a chicken wire fence nearby covered in pink and violet sweet peas that are beginning to wilt slightly in the heat and their fragrance mingles with the warm smell of dirt and tomatoes…..Ahhhhhhh. Summer is coming. I promise.