You heard me right. Okra! It’s one of nature’s most mystifying vegetables, and boy oh boy, do reactions to it vary. When it comes to okra, there are three basic schools of thought:
(1) I love it!
(2) Gross! It’s so slimy!
(3) What’s okra?
Since I’m featuring it today, I obviously fall into the first group. The problem, however, is that even okra fans have a hard time figuring out what to do with it. Okra doesn’t look, feel, or taste like any other vegetable, so it’s not an easy substitute for other ingredients. Furthermore, the odds are that unless you grew up in the South in a family of okraphiles, the fried version is your only exposure to this podded wonder.
While it may not be the most versatile food ever, okra gets a bad rap. Okra is high in fiber, low in calories, and chockfull of vitamins and nutrients. It’s inexpensive, easy to grow, and, at least for me, extremely productive. I live near St. Louis, and every year, the okra plants in my little garden are superstars. (This year’s six okra plants are producing 15-20 pods I can pick at least twice a week from mid-summer through the fall.) That makes it cost-efficient, which is a big win for us.
As a result of this productivity, I’ve had to get creative. Soups and gumbos, fried okra, and okra piccadilly (add some cabbage, tomato, onion, and peppers) have filled our fridge. I’ve cooked it with rice and potatoes and whatever other veggies are fresh from the garden (squash and tomatoes usually work). It even freezes well. I haven’t had the nerve to try okra bread yet, but I’m thinking of mixing it into hushpuppies or cornbread soon. The lesson—as I’m sure the Okra Growers of America would endorse—is that trying something different can be worth the adventure.
I suppose that’s my point about writing too. Try something different every now and then. Mix in a character type you would never normally consider. Attempt a genre or viewpoint you’ve never embraced. Heck, throw a truckload of okra into a scene and see what happens. You might just have your most interesting story yet. If nothing else, you’ll at least have a lot of okra. And if that happens, here’s one way to cook it.
Jonathan’s Fried Okra
32 oz. (4 c.) okra, cut into ½-inch rounds
1½ c. cornmeal
2 c. flour
1½ tsp. pepper
1¼ T. salt
1 T. cumin
3½ T. sugar
1½ c. milk (or buttermilk)
oil—I prefer peanut, but vegetable and canola also work well
Pour ¾ inches of oil into a skillet. Heat on medium to about 350° F. Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients in medium or large container. (I use a 9x9 Pyrex pan). Pour milk into a smaller bowl.
(A comment at this point: depending on the size of your skillet, you’ll likely want to divide the okra up into batches [I made four]. Coat each batch while the previous one is cooking.) Place okra in milk, then remove okra with fingers or slotted spoon—after allowing milk to drip back into bowl—and place in cornmeal mixture. Fully coat until no longer wet. Shake crumbs off. Then place back in milk briefly, before once again coating it in the cornmeal mixture until you feel no dampness.
Shake loose particles off; then spoon the okra into the hot oil. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, until coating is a light golden brown. Do not overcook or okra will get too hard.
Remove with slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towels. Serve hot, and have an okrariffic day!
Note 1: For a lighter but equally tasty coating, dip in okra and milk only once. Cut all dry ingredient measurements in half.
Note 2: I tweak this all the time, so don’t be afraid to change up the oil, the seasonings, and the flour/cornmeal balance. Find what works for your tastebuds.
Note 3: This also works well for squash and pickles (but dip them only once).