Whatever your beliefs or views on creation, think something went a bit awry the day that Okra was invented. The long slender fingerlike veggies are not only a bit fuzzy but distinctly woodsy and of course, disturbingly slimy. Finding the silver lining in this vegetable’s quirky qualities can be challenging at best. While the specific origin of this allopolyploid is unknown, in virtually all of the far flung areas in which Okra is cultivated, the locals have found a way to weave the pods into their local cuisine in a way which harnesses the seemingly negative qualities of the vegetable to enhance traditional style dishes.
In much of the world Okra can be found slow cooked in stews and curries. The slow cooking process renders the mucus out of the vegetable and this process actually thickens the gravy or sauce of the dish. In other areas Okra is cooked whole over high heat in dry curries or stir fries, it can even be grilled until slightly charred without activating the veggie’s slime factor. Luckily for us, when we are short on time, or don’t feel like consuming all of those little suckers in the course of a weekend, canning is a great option for okra. The acid in a pickling liquid can help, not only to keep evil botulism bacteria at bay, but also to break down the plant’s mucilaginous products, ensuring an end product that is both refreshingly zingy and goo free.
This recipe is amazingly forgiving. Forget to buy garlic? – no sweat; want to add different spices? – go for it, the possibilities for flavor combinations are truly endless. Here in the South many employ hot pepper flakes to give pickled okra a piquant kick. Others, preferring a milder pickle, may use pickling spice or dill to add flavor to the pods. The pickles make a great garnish for a classy bloody mary or a cheese plate at cocktail hour.
Pickled Okra (Adapted From the Food in Jars Cookbook)
1.5 Cups Apple Cider Vinegar (5% acidity)
1.5 Cups White Wine Vinegar (5% acidity)
3 TBSP Kosher Salt
4 Lemon Rounds, About 1/4 Inch Thick
4 TBSP Pickling Spice
2 LBs Okra, Washed and Trimmed
4 Cloves garlic, Peeled
Start with four clean jars. Jars can either be cleaned and heated in your canner or, if your dish washer gets hot enough you can use this to clean the jars, check with your manufacturer to verify its capabilities. Bring vinegars and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan and stir until salt is dissolved. While the vinegar mixture heats, place lemon, garlic, and pickling spice in the bottom of the hot clean jars.
Pack okra tightly into jars, leaving a minimum of a 1/2 inch of room between the okra and the top of the jar. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the okra. Clean and dry the jar rims and place a clean lid on the jar. Twist on bands with one hand until jar starts to turn on the counter (bands should be on but not on tightly so that air can escape during processing.
Process the jars in the canner and return to a boil. Process for 10 minutes if at sea level. For 1,001 to 3,000 feet asl, add another 5 minutes to the 10 minute processing time. For 3,001 to 6,000 feet asl, add 10 minutes to the 10 minute processing time. For 6,001 to 8,000 feet asl, add another 15 minutes to the 10 minute processing time. And finally, for 8,001 to 10,000 feet asl, add an additional 20 minutes to the 10 minute processing time for a total of 30 minutes.
Remove the jars from the canner without tilting them. Let the jars dry in a cool place, without touching the lids, for 24 hours. Remove the screw bands and store in a cool and preferably dark place for up to a year.
There is an amazing farmers market that takes place at the end of our block in East Nashville every Wednesday. It is populated entirely by small farmers, local bakers, and ma and pa style food merchants. In my mind it is far better than the big daily farmers market downtown, where the produce comes from local mega-farms and the sales folks have little knowledge of how the fruits and veggies are grown. Every week I go to the same handful of merchants, there is one in particular, and older man and his wife, who sell some of the most beautiful produce I have ever seen. They typically have slightly unusual and heirloom varieties that I love to take home and experiment with. This last week, on their farm stand, was a large basket of beautiful thick walled Okra. I brought them home knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the little guys.
You see, I have been secretly in love with Fried Okra since we moved down here and have been wanting to try my hand at it at home. When we moved in Dustin’s family brought us the cutest little deep fryer I have ever seen. As this was the first time I have ever fried anything at home I was a bit trepidations about how it would go. Amazingly however, it was very simple. I filled the little fryer up to the fill line with vegetable oil – it used about 3 1/2 cups, plugged it in, and let it do the rest. For some reason, I was expecting that this first attempt at home frying would result in the same sort of disaster that typically befalls my forays into baking. But what emerged from the fryer was truly sublime okra perfection. These were so much better than any fried okra I had ever had before. The cornmeal breading was light and gave them an incredibly crunchy exterior, the inside was steaming hot, and slightly softened by the frying process but still had a nice toothsome chew.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a little deep fryer of your own. These can be made the traditional way in a large cast iron skillet as well. Simply heat about 4 cups of oil in a 12 inch skillet until it reaches a steady 350 degrees. Drop the okra in in batches and fry until golden, flipping several times during the cooking process so that it browns evenly on both sides. This dish is so good that it can convert even the most adamant Okra hater. While I typically like to dip my fried okra in a creamy smooth buttermilk based dip (and I made one the other night to accompany this batch of fried okra) but the little crunch morsels were so good on their own that they didn’t really need the dip at all. I like to serve these topped with a bit of hand crushed fleur de sel. Once they are made, watch them carefully because if you don’t they might disappear on you.
Fried Okra – Adapted from Sarah Foster’s Southern Cooking
4 cups peanut or canola oil
1 Pound Okra Sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1/2 Cup Whole Milk Buttermilk
1 Egg Beaten
Dash of Louisiana Hot Sauce
1/4 Cup Stone-ground cornmeal
1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper to Taste
Large Flake Sea Salt to Taste (optional)
Heat oil in a deep fryer or cast iron skillet to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs buttermilk and hot sauce until well combined.
In a medium bowl, sift the cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper together twice.
Add the okra to the egg mixture and toss until it is evenly coated.
Place in the cornmeal mixture and scatter the dredge over the okra and toss to coat.
Shake off the okra and place in a single layer in the frying pan or basket and fry until browned on all sides. Carefully transfer to a plate lined with brown paper (great way to reuse brown paper bags.) Crush a bit of fleur de sel over the top and devour immediately.