How to Make Okra You’ll Really Love

As soon as I said, “I don’t understand why anyone wants to eat okra,” the music seemed to stop, the crowd turned to gaze, and I heard the glasses smashing on the floor. There was no immediate exit at all, and I made a huge mistake. Fortunately, I was in New Orleans, and afterwards I was taught by my aunt who was kind enough not to hit me with the ladle in my hand.

Growing up in Jamaica, I ate okra in two ways: boiled or steamed. Both cooking methods resulted in slimy guts deceivingly enclosed in a thin finger-shaped pod, and it featured prominently in my Why-You-Ever-Eat This? For decades. list, along with eggplant, instant pudding, mousse and risotto. As I grew up, I accepted and appreciated all of these products, but okra was the last one to win me over. (I will never eat salmon mousse, however. It’s not 1987 and it’s a crime against nature to take a delicious fish and make it to him.)

I learned to appreciate okra on that fateful trip to New Orleans in 2011. My friends and I drank all day and needed something essential. We ended up in another bar and served food, but there was only one item on the menu – gumbo. I wondered what karmic crimes I had committed to get there while everyone else raved about gumbo. I didn’t understand why there were as many white styrofoam bowls as empty glasses until I got a history lesson from an aunt whose gumbo recipe had been kept in her family for generations.

Okra was first cultivated in Ethiopia in the 12th century BC. It belongs to the same family as hibiscus and cotton and was introduced to the Caribbean and the Southern United States by slaves from West Africa.

As Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of The Culinary Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South, said :

On the North American mainland, okra was one of the main symbols of the establishment of an enslaved community as a culinary outpost in West Africa.

And, in addition to being a well-known food to help manage the effects of diabetes, a 2014 medical study found that okra seeds contain phytochemicals that reduce stress. It also contains a lot of mucus, which gives the pod a “slimy” texture.

There are both red and green okra and both varieties grow year-round in tropical climates – it takes about 60 days from seed to harvest. It is widely used in Africa, the Caribbean, the southern United States, Greece, Turkey, India, and South America. You might ask, “With so many regional influences, does okra cooking have to be more than boiling and steaming?” Luckily for those of us with texture issues, we do.

Marianna’s Kitchen owner Marianna Farag loves okra and its many dishes. Being born in Greece to Egyptians and Syrians, and having a French passport, gave her an edge over most okra fans. Farag loves to “fry them like an octopus,” which she does by dividing each pod into quarters vertically without completely dividing each segment, dipping them in batter and then deep-frying them. She also eats them raw. “I dip the tender ones in hummus, and it’s better than celery sticks,” she says.

Okra is underutilized and widely underestimated in the US and Canada, with the exception of the American South, where you can find deliciously crispy deep fried okra. In Barbados, the sticky texture of okra is celebrated in a polenta dish called cou cou, where the pod gives the platter a stretch similar to melted mozzarella. Serve it with grilled flying fish and you have the national dish of Barbados. In Jamaica, it is used to make smoothies, which should be the pod’s most creative use.

Using okra slime is the key to the success of the okra dish. Whether you are trying to reduce the sliminess or use it as an advantage of a dish, knowing how to cook it properly will allow more home chefs to experience the unique herbal flavor of vegetables.

How to buy and store okra

Look for young, hard pods that crack like green beans. The older the okra gets, the more fibrous it becomes, making it practically inedible. Store them in a basket or paper bag in a cool, dry place. If you won’t be using what you bought for a couple of days, place the okra in a paper bag or in a shallow bowl in the refrigerator. Don’t wash until you’re ready to cook, as water will seep into the delicate skin, making the cooked vegetable – you guessed it – slimmer.

How to cook okra

Avoid cooking on aluminum trays, foil or cast iron if possible. Aluminum and iron affect the pH of the okra, resulting in discoloration, and these metals will interact with the cellular structures of the okra, making cooked pods dull and lifeless.

How you cut the pod can also affect the final texture of your dish. Cutting the pod into discs or smaller pieces increases its surface area, which makes it easier for the okra to form a sticky texture, which isn’t always a bad thing as it acts as a great thickener for stews, soups, and polenta, especially if you like Bajan food.

Bajan cou cou

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups fine to medium-sized yellow cornmeal
  • ½ lb. fresh okra
  • 3 glasses of water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
  • 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (may be vegetable based)

In a bowl, combine the cornmeal with enough water (about one cup) until it looks like damp sand and set aside.

Wash the okra, then cut off the top and bottom and discard them. Cut into discs and place the slices in a thick-bottomed stock pot over high heat with the remaining water, salt and white pepper. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until okra is tender, about five minutes. Remove the okra from the water with a slotted spoon or spider and set aside.

Boil the remaining water for five to eight minutes to reduce the amount of liquid – you want 1 1/4 cups of okra-depleted water left in the pot. Whisk the soaked cornmeal in the boiling water slowly, being careful not to clump. After adding the cornmeal, take a wooden spoon, stirring every two to three minutes. After 15 minutes of cooking, test the cornmeal. The grains should dissolve on the tongue or turn into a fine paste when rubbed between your fingers. Add the cooked okra and stir for another two minutes. Remove the pot from the stove and add the oil. Can be served as an accompaniment to stews or gravy dishes.

Okra baked in the oven

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb okra
  • 1 tablespoon zaatar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon chopped black pepper

Rinse the okra and pat dry. Cut off the tops and ends of the bottoms, discard the pods and cut them in half vertically. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients, then add the halves of the pods and stir to coat.

Place the prepared okra on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 450 ° F. Do not stir too much during baking or the okra will become slimy, which is not what we are aiming for here. Turn the okra halves over or stir only once while baking; The 10 minute mark is the perfect time. Check texture after 18 minutes bake. It should be slightly charred with crispy pieces. I cooked mine for 25 minutes; subtle bitter notes combine well with the natural herbiness of okra and the harshness of lemon.

Jamaican okra smoothie

Ingredients:

  • 3 fresh okra pods
  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter (on the island we use a handful or roughly a cup of unsalted roasted peanuts)
  • ½ cup instant oatmeal
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 2 cups milk (almond, oatmeal, and cashew nut can be used)
  • 2 tablespoons of condensed milk or honey
  • 3 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients until oats and okra are completely combined. Drink immediately. The longer it sits, the more gelatinous it becomes.

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