My friend Tim brought me a mess of okra the other day. I’m certain most cookbooks have a metric conversion table if you need to know exactly how much a mess is by volume, but most often a mess is defined as more than you need but barely enough to share. Yet share I did.
I’m a decent okra cook, but don’t use it as often as I’d like. It’s a bit of a hassle to prepare, and most okra clean-up comes with a degree of difficulty. It is mucilaginous, meaning it becomes slimy when you cook it. Forget about cooking, it is even slimier when you slice it.
Of course these lengthy pods did not originate on this lovely continent. The first mess of okra was harvested a little closer to Mesopotamia than it was to a Louisiana plantation, as origins can be traced to West Africa or Ethiopia. But we are certain it crossed the great Atlantic Ocean to find its rightful home in our gumbo pot.
Speaking of gumbo, in certain dialects the word for okra is “gumbo.” Most of us use sliced seed pods along with a chocolate-colored roux to thicken the stew of choice for the Gulf Coast. True, not all of our gumbo has okra in it, and its absence is no deal breaker for me, but I mostly prefer it in seafood gumbo. I know it isn’t unheard of in chicken and sausage gumbo, but it isn’t required, despite the name.
Fresh-cut okra is harvested before maturity and will last a couple of days in the refrigerator, so the best way to keep it to pickle it. Pickled okra is akin to pickled cucumbers, but excels when mixed with spicy-hot peppers. A good sting is vital to the perfect pickled okra, and the perfect pickled okra is vital to the perfect Bloody Mary. This is one of the healthiest ways to consume this fruit (yes, I said fruit, on a technicality) as it is low in everything bad for you and high in antioxidants.
Dehydrated okra can be served as a replacement for potato chips. I first encountered this at Little House Bistro and was hooked. You don’t have to have a proper food dehydrator to make these, although that is the easiest way. A little bit of heat and a lot of patience can dry out the slime to a crunchy shell in a matter of hours. With your oven on low and the door cracked, you can dehydrate just about anything. The good news is some grocers who sell bulk food often have okra chips.
But here we are in the Deep South. If we aren’t slicing up the okra for gumbo we’re usually bathing it in batter and frying it. When I say fry I mean either deep fry or shallow fry. It depends on where you’re from and how much oil you have in your pantry. The batter is usually cornmeal and flour, and your momma will let you know which is more important. Don’t embarrass the family, kiddo. But no matter what, you must have salt. Okra is nothing without it. For a cup of each dry ingredient I would recommend at least a half teaspoon.
Here is my breakdown: Chopped okra will soak in buttermilk. My cornmeal-to-flour ratio will be two-to-one cornmeal. I will shallow fry them in a cast iron skillet with a half inch or less of vegetable oil, turning them often. This is my indoor recipe. If I’m outdoors frying fish, then I don’t mind dropping them into inches of peanut oil. I just don’t want to stink up the house.
Nappie award winner Noble South has some of the best fried okra in this city, and has me hooked on slicing the pods lengthwise. I’m happy eating the whole piece in one bite. With Noble South’s version in mind, I tried a combination of oven-fried okra sans batter last night that turned out pretty good. It was a mess-free meal that left me with a good taste in my mouth.
First I tossed lengthwise-sliced okra pods with olive oil, salt, garlic powder and black pepper. I cooked them in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 degrees for a good half hour. Keep an eye on these little devils. You want them crispy but not burnt. I scorched a couple on the edges, but it was an easy experiment that can be adjusted next time.
This isn’t rocket surgery, but it is an idea worth sharing. They were good enough that I didn’t mind eating the whole pod, stem and all. In the end, I found it to be an easy recipe I’ll be sure to repeat. But I shall not abandon the old, messy, cornmeal recipe. It is still my favorite. Sometimes a mess of okra is worth the mess.