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.

Okra Part 1: Whole Roasted Okra

After writing the last post about okra, I planned to quickly post the follow-up recipe posts, but when I went in search of okra for some last-minute testing and photos, I couldn’t find any! The bin at the local supermarket here was full of the sorriest most pathetic pile of okra I have ever seen (due less to being picked over by discerning shoppers than to the general attitude of apathy and torpor under which that particular produce department seems to generally operate) and the farmers market was a wash over the weekend. I guess the stand that carries the beautiful okra I posted last week is only there on weekdays. Oh the trials of trying to cook Southern food in NYC! As a New Orleans transplant I was chatting with said, “You can get anything in the WORLD here, just not anything in the COUNTRY.”

pathetic- just pathetic

This has to be the simplest way to cook okra. Whole, with a lightly crisped spicy exterior, roasted okra is easy to throw together as part of a meal or as I like it as a tasty salty snack. It’s a perfect little finger food to have with beer, salty and spicy without the oily heaviness of a bowl of chips.

I have tried a few different methods of making roasted okra:  slicing it into quarters and tossing it with slivered chiles and onions, tossing whole pods with spices, corn flour and corn starch, tossing whole pods with oil, corn starch and spices, low heat, high heat, you name it. Trial and error brought me to conclude that the simplest, most predictably successful method was to toss whole trimmed pods with oil, then lightly coat them with a cornstarch and spice mixture and then roast them at high heat on a large baking sheet.

Before I detail the recipe I use here, I’ll explain a couple of the problems I’ve had with other methods.  First, quartering the okra and roasting them with chiles and onions is tasty, but it’s not as crisp as the whole roasted pods and at high heat (to try to crisp them up) the chiles and onions tend to burn before the okra is done. Second, adding corn flour (which I use when I fry okra) adds a little extra crispness to the exterior, but the spice coating tends to be clumpy and not adhere as well. Third, my trigger-happy smoke detector taught me to always coat the okra with oil BEFORE putting it on the baking sheet! I tried drizzling the okra with oil while it was on the pan once and the oil that was on the pan started burning and smoking, the smoke detector was shrieking and I was standing in the hall frantically waving a plastic cutting board at the ceiling to get it to shut up! Finally, low heat doesn’t brown the exterior quickly enough, so by the time the exterior has crisped up, the entire pod has collapsed into mush.

One of my favorite spice blends for roasting okra is a vaguely Indian mixture with cumin, ginger, and chile, but I say try whatever seasoning suits your fancy, as long as the spices are finely powdered so that they will stick to the okra – in other words, no big flakes of oregano leaves or rosemary. They will just fall off and burn. I have also used coconut oil instead of regular vegetable oil which compliments the curry-esque spice mix.

Whole Roasted Okra

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425

1 pound of okra pods

1-2 tablespoons of oil (coconut if you have it)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cumin

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne (more or less to your personal heat tolerance)

½ teaspoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt (reduce by half for table salt)

Trim the stems of the okra down to within ¼ to 1/8 inch of the top of the pod. Wash and drain thoroughly in a colander, shaking off as much moisture as you can.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the spices and cornstarch so that the coating on the okra will be even.

In a large bowl, toss the okra with the oil, coating each pod evenly. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the okra and the toss again, lightly coating each pod.

Scatter the okra onto a large baking sheet, giving the okra as much elbow room as you can. The browning happens where the okra is touching the pan and NOT touching its neighbor which would cause it to steam and not roast.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the okra is browned to your liking – I think my oven may be a bit fiercer than some others). Give the pan an occasional shake to turn the okra, giving each side time on the pan’s hot surface.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before checking for salt and devouring.

Okra: the Prologue

Have you ever had a friend visit one of your favorite places – say, San Francisco or New York City – and spend all of their time in the worst areas – say Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square – and leave with a terrible impression of that place – crowded, over-priced terrible food, kitschy and touristy? It’s frustrating. While you know that there is so much more to San Francisco than Madame Tussaud’s and t-shirt shops, it can be hard to overcome that negative first impression, however unjustified.

That sums up my feelings about okra. One of my favorite vegetables, it has a terrible reputation based largely on misunderstanding and poor preparation. Is okra slimy? Well, yes and no. Depending on how it is handled and prepared, it can either look like a creature from Alien or it can be as silky and soothing as good stock. Can it be prickly and stringy? Yes, if you get mature, past-their-prime pods. But all of these are easily avoidable disasters.

So, if you’ll let me be your tour guide, I’ll try to give you a better second impression of okra.

Let’s start with choosing the best okra:

I remember when I was little, my mom handed me a tiny tender okra pod to taste straight from the garden; it was still warm, easy to bite and chew, tender and velvety. It was a perfect little ripe okra pod, bright green and pliable, probably about the size of my thumb now. I prefer cooked okra, but they should be edible when raw, not tough and sharply ridged.

As with most fruits and vegetables, there is a tremendous difference between “ripe” and “mature” okra. Ripeness is the peak of flavor and tenderness before the plant begins putting all of its energy into producing and protecting viable seeds.  Think about the difference between an English pea pod and a flat snow pea. The English pea shell has matured into a case to protect the peas (or seeds) inside while the snow pea is still juicy and tender, immature but ripe. Since okra is not eaten mainly for its seeds, I want the outside to be tender like the snow pea rather than the English pea.

Okra is a sensitive little thing, easily bruised by over-handling, so a good indication of freshness is whether the tips and ridges are blackened by much squeezing and tossing. If you buy okra in a farmers market or grocery store that serves an enthusiastic okra-eating demographic like Indians, West Africans, or East Asians, you will probably see shoppers standing beside the bin rifling through the pile feeling each individual pod in order to get only the best. If an okra pod has been passed over often enough so that it gets bruised like that, walk away. The experts have spoken.

If you come across a pristine pile, go ahead and start feeling up the produce. Gently pick up each bright green pod that looks to be about the right size (think a ladies thumb) and give a little squeeze to see if it feels spiny and rigid or tender and pliable. There will be a light fuzz on the outside and they shouldn’t feel dry or brittle. The tips should be intact and not black and battered looking, and a little bit of stem on the other end keeps them from drying out too quickly. As long as they are not damp, they will store for a few days in a bag in your crisper drawer.

There are two exceptions to the size and color rules: First, there is an okra variety called “cow horn” that is much larger than other varieties while still being ripe rather than mature. If a seller can assure you that the large variety you are looking at is indeed the cow horn type, go ahead and try it, but if they are uncertain, don’t bother buying their okra. There is too much risk that you’ll end up with something that tastes like balsa wood. And then there are some gorgeous bronze and burgundy varieties of okra (like the ones in the first picture)that I like to try when I find them. They are less common though, so I would stick with green until you get comfortable and then branch out to more exotic types.

Now, before I get into any discussion on preparation, let’s talk about slime. Like I said, okra can be really slimy, depending on how it is cooked and handled. But why?  What is it that turns a velvety little pod into something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon? In a word, fiber. Okra contains a soluble fiber charmingly known as “mucilage.” Some other foods that contain mucilage are aloe vera, nopal (or prickly pear cactus), kelp (or kombu), chia seeds, flax seeds, and oatmeal. And just like aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin, this type of fiber is very soothing on the inside. During his recovery from orthognathic surgery a few years ago, Scott had a reaction to anti-swelling steroids he was given that caused a lot of stomach pain. One of the few foods that he could swallow that soothed his stomach were homemade miso soup (made with kelp) and stewed okra. This soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and keeping the digestive system healthy as a probiotic.

While I may not be able to convince anyone to love okra based purely on its health benefits,  these benefits are information worth knowing. I do however think that I’ll be able to convince you to give it a second change based on it’s deliciousness and versatility, beginning in my next post. See you soon in Okra: Part I