Confession No. 45 — My annual homage to okra, and other recollections

My memory is far from photographic, but I can recall the dinner menus from just about every one of my previous 41 birthdays.

I also remember just about every birthday dessert from age 10 — when I apparently became old enough to tell my parents that I don’t care for cake. But that’s a different story. This story is about my love affair with fried okra.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a native of Africa. It’s known as kingombo, ki ngombo and other variations around the world. If a couple of those common names sound vaguely familiar, it’s because okra is also the basis for an authentic Louisiana gumbo. The yellow okra blooms look strikingly similar to tropical hibiscus flowers, and with good reason. Both are members of the mallow (Malvaceae) family.

Not that I took any of this into consideration when I developed a massive crush on this seed pod 40 or so years ago.

I cannot recollect my first bite of fried okra, but I’m sure that it came from my dad’s frying pan, or from the cast-iron skillet of his elders. Dad grew up in the cotton fields of north Texas. He worked someone else’s crop with his family to make ends meet. Despite their backbreaking efforts, Dad’s family occasionally had to resort to fishing the local creek or taking aim at anything that flew over their little shack of a house — for that night’s meal. But they also knew a thing, or two about raising a yardful of greens, summer tomatoes … and okra.

I was fortunate. Dad made certain that the only cotton I picked was out of curiosity; that we were only recreational anglers; and that we never went to bed hungry. For whatever reason, however, I rarely went to bed with a bellyful of fried okra.

Okra’s flavor is difficult to describe — almost a combination of eggplant tang and asparagus sweet. It’s delicious when grilled, pickled, made into chips, boiled (for a select few of us) … and fried.

As scrumptious as it is, the world’s best pod has never made a ‘Top 10′ list outside of the southern U.S., in all likelihood, because of its reputation for being slimy. Here’s the skinny on okra slime, or mucilage, as it’s technically known: it’s a combination of sugars and proteins. It tends to thicken when heated (which is why it was originally a gumbo staple), but is generally reduced to nonexistent (or at least unnoticeable) when the pods are given a salt bath — or sliced, salted, breaded … and fried. In addition to being great for the soul, the okra slime is also good for the body, as it is chock full of soluble and insoluble fiber. I’m neither turned off by okra slime, nor turned on by okra’s health benefits. Okra just tastes damn good.

I could eat okra as a meal — and did every June 9, between about 1973 and 1994, when I moved from Texas to New Jersey. The Garden State is a mecca for good tomatoes, apples, eggplant and some of the best corn on this planet. But they’ve never heard of okra. In fact, Pathmark was the only grocer that offered okra, but it was sliced and frozen. And even someone who’s considered starting his own religion centered around okra can’t work very successfully with that.

I attempted obtaining my all-time favorite vegetable via FedEx. It worked out OK, but I just couldn’t fade this pod at $30 per pound. Not often, anyway.

Back in the Lone Star State about 14 years, I’ve been able to eat my weight in okra. My family, including my New Jersey wife, has also developed a fondness for it. For several years, unlike my childhood, we’ve consumed fried okra on a whim here and there, alongside everything from grilled hamburgers to hot dogs sautéed in butter. Not just on June 9.

Then reality set in.

In attempt to reverse some weight gain and general health issues, I decided a few years ago that my fried okra consumption should probably be equal to my intake of white truffles or Kobe beef. So I began grilling, dry-frying and even roasting it. All aforementioned methods have proven themselves delicious, but I can’t — nor do I want to — help myself.

It’s June 9. My day. And, for one meal at least, I’m going back to my true love.


I’m growing a new (to me) burgundy-colored okra this summer. If the plants produce similarly to their Clemson Spineless relatives, I might have a whole new slew of okra recipes and lore come September. Meantime, this recipe is classic Southern and is best cooked in a cast-iron skillet. If you don’t own at least one piece of cast-iron cookware, you are cheating yourself. It conducts heat better than any material outside of copper, and it lasts a hell of a lot longer.

Fried Okra

2 lbs. – Fresh okra
1 cup – White or yellow cornmeal

Salt & black pepper**

Okra is sort of like Coca Cola. It goes well with just about everything. In the South, fried okra and garden-fresh tomatoes make the summer heat almost bearable.

Corn or vegetable oil

Either slice okra in half, lengthwise (as pictured), or ice into half-inch chunks. With either method, remove stem.

Place sliced okra into a gallon-sized plastic resealable bag or large plastic bowl. Season generously with salt (I use Kosher salt). Add pepper to taste. Toss until all pieces are coated with spices. Allow to sit for a few minutes. **I’ve also used commercially available seasonings such as Zatarain’s and Tony Chachere’s, instead of salt and pepper, with good results.

Meanwhile, add just enough oil to the bottom of cast-iron (or other) skillet to cover the surface. Heat on medium setting (use slightly higher heat setting with skillets made of stainless steel and other materials).

Add cornmeal to okra and toss to cover.

When oil is just beginning to smoke, add okra, using your fingers to avoid surplus cornmeal from making its way to the skillet. Cover skillet (No. That’s not a misprint) and allow okra to cook for about 5-7 minutes. Just as you would with pan-fried fried potatoes, use a spatula and redistribute the okra so that everything gets cooked evenly. Repeat this about every 5-7 minutes until okra begins to brown and pods are darker colored, about 15-20 minutes.

Makes a nice side dish for a family of five, or an entire meal for me — on my birthday.

Comments

  1. You make me want to give okra a second try : )

  2. I lived in Texas for over 20 yrs and I too fell in love with okra…..not many of my mid-western family even knows what it is or what to do with it. (and now that I’m in Canada….well most people don’t even know what it is..lol) I love it fried and of course in gumbo…although its been a very long time since I’ve had any I have many fond memories of it……grow some for me!! :-)

  3. I will pick some up next time I see it at the grocery store. It is available now and again. Thanks for the simple but great looking recipe!

  4. juanitascocina says:

    I only like mine fried, except for this tomato okra casserole that this soul food joint back home used to make. And I HAVE to have ranch dressing, or I’m not eating it.

    So, my wife peeked over my shoulder and saw this, and she asked me to try this at home. You cause me nothing but trouble.

    • C’mon, Jen. Ranch dressing? Seriously? Note to self: future blog about the deplorable invention of ranch dressing. Besides, have you ever had okra chips? Roasted okra? I’m with your wife. Well, not *with* her, but you know what I mean! Glad she’s there to keep you straight. ;-)

      • juanitascocina says:

        I seriously guffawed…like a loud and unattractive snort at this.

        I’m heading into Arlington tomorrow. For real shopping. We just added *gulp* okra to the list.

        • Do yourself and your wife a favor … Swing by Whole Foods and pick up some okra chips. In fact, I’m begging you to do this. You’ll be thanking me by this time tomorrow.

          • juanitascocina says:

            Noted. But ewww. We’ve got Whole Foods & World Market on the list. And some bitchin’ Dim Sum.

  5. I hate okra, but I guess it’s because I’ve never tried it fried ;)

  6. Whenever I’ve had okra, it’s always soft. This on the other hand looks amazing.

  7. Love okra. Must try the recipe.

  8. First of all, happy birthday a day late Adam. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed feasting on your dish of okra. I have seen fresh okra at my market, Fairway, here on Manhattan’s Upper West Side many times. Yet, I’ve never prepared it so until I read your post I did not put much thought into it. Is okra in season all year round? You do seem like a man who is an okra expert. I have had it in Tex-Mex type restaurants, but I don’t recall loving it on loathing it. Your recipe sounds doable. Thanks for sharing!

  9. gayle wu wei says:

    Yes this looks amazing. I like okra but will admit never go out of my way to buy unless it’s the rare occasion when I’m making gumbo. BF LOVES okra, especially fried okra. So no doubt, we will be giving this recipe a try (so easy-peezy too).

  10. You dad gum turncoat LOL. I read this blog and you have deserted Texas and moved so far away I cannot afford to taste your actual recipe made by you. So now this leaves me with trying to replicate the ( what we Texans would call an entree all by itself) on my own. I am going to try this out and will get back with you on the results. And by the way, if you like pasta salads and you want to try something I through together memorial day weekend–check out my blog on “Out of the Fridge and Cabinet” If you ever get a chance to try it. Hope you have a great successful Chefs day in the kitchen. Lester and thanks for sharing your recipe.

  11. Happy Late Birthday, Adam! There is just something special about people born in June (mines in a few days and Mrs. G’s is next week)

    Love me some fried okra. And pickled, especially is its got a bit of heat. And in gumbo. Never heard of chips, though. I’ll have to look for that one.

    No drunk rants this weekend?

    • Thanks, Jason. Happy Birthday to you and the Mrs. I was going to have drunk rant yesterday morning, but I didn’t want to hear that I need to admit to having a problem. ;-) Those okra chips are sold at Whole Foods in the bulk section. They are the bomb.

  12. I have got to try the okra chips! Being a native of Georgia, I so miss getting really fresh okra and you do need a “mess” of it to fry it. We always sliced ours across but I love your idea of slicing length-wise. Really loved the post, Adam.

  13. Cheers for liking my post and for following my humble little blog (theroadtoserendipity) in Tasmania Mr A, as highly sceptical as I am about the benefits of okra (holding it in the same esteem as the dog deposits that I have to pick up on a regular basis out the back…) you actually managed to make me think that it looked (dare I say it…) tasty in that recipe! I am still suspicious. My last venture into degustory delight involving okra ended in me throwing the entire pot of mucilagenous (snotty) ineptitude into the toilet and pressing the magic “flush” button that makes all of my not-so-fortuitous recipe adventures disappear into the ether. Can’t say that I am ever going to like this unusually shaped pod, but as a vegetarian, and a steadfast proponent of forcing my kids when they were young to “just try a little bit and then you can throw it away if you don’t like it” I owe it to okra to give it another try…if it results in a small bright green pod full of nasal secretions I am OUTTA THERE! ;)

  14. I’m with those who aren’t fans but this makes me want to try again! I think I bought frozen okra once and it got slimy (eewww)! You came to mind yesterday when we grilled kielbasas…they weren’t as good as a beefy hot dog IMO. Could go for one right now….yum :) . Love your posts–hilarious. Happy belated bday!

  15. Love okra – as all good Indians do – and Happy Birthday to you fellow Gemini, but one thing is very disturbing about this post. You don’t like cake? Cake is life dude. I survive 8 hour baby and bridal showers for cake. So vital is cake to us/me that we usually do cake for breakfast on birthdays (or birtdays as i like to sometimes say). Sometimes we have multiple cakes. Anyway – just needed to get that out. Back to okra – okra is rocks. Although okra is no cake…sorry…

  16. Fried okra is amazing. I’ve taken to just broiling it sans the cornmeal lately and I like it quite well.
    As for cake… Dear Jesus I can’t imagine anyone thinking cake is just blah. I am sort of in love with cake.

    • Josie – What can I say? I’m a pie person. I prefer something gooey over something cakey, and nothing about cake beats the consistency of a well-made crust. Now brownies? Or lemon bars? Even cookies…

  17. Hi Adam, thanks for the follow – and for giving me another recipe to try with okra, one of my favourite veg. I’m with Josie on the cake thing, though – you’ve simply not tried the right cake if you can only think of it as blah. Granted, I’d probably choose a good savoury pie over a piece of cake – proper raised crust game pie is pretty hard to beat – but there is definitely a place in life for cake beyond blah. Maybe you need to try friands – a nice crust and moist, almondy deliciousness inside. Yum :)

  18. I’m an Illinois girl, but my mom (who lived in southern Illinois for years) loved growing okra in our garden, so fried okra is one of my favorite comfort foods. Thanks for this bit of nostalgia!

  19. Can’t say I share your love of okra…but fried stuff oh yeah. My mom learned the finer alchemy of fried onion rings from her old time friend PearlieMae. They are SO good. But, like you fried foods have taken a back seat in the repertoire. Now we only have them once in a “Blue Moon” and I see there’s one coming up in Aug :)
    *anna

  20. Hi,

    I got here as I saw you are following my blog – as a total blogging newbie that made my day, well, my week to be fair.

    As for okra, to be honest I was never a fan because of the slime, but what you write about the use of salt is intriguing. Given that I am otherwise a fan of all things green, you may have just convinced me to give okra another try.

    Oh and this: “I’m neither turned off by okra slime, nor turned on by okra’s health benefits. Okra just tastes damn good.” totally means I will check out your blog in the future as well – love your style of writing!

    Sophia

  21. We grew okra in our garden when I was growing up. Picking it was not easy as the plant is rather prickly. However, it was worth the effort. So yummy so many different ways. On another note, I don’t think fried okra is bad for you, something that tastes so good can’t be bad.
    Thanks for bringing back my childhood memories!

    • Okra picking is like eggplant picking: it can be hazardous to your fingertips. It’s why I use my Felco No. 2s. And you make an excellent point about fried okra being a healthy dish. Glad you stopped by!

  22. As a Texan transplant married to a Texan, this post and recipe is about to make my husband VERY happy!! Great lead in as well, and Happy Birthday (belated)!

  23. mmm. love love love fried okra. Those look reallllllly good…

    Good to hear you are reunited with your great love, at least just for one day!

  24. Having lived in TX, I loved your story and also love deep fried okra! Will share my low cal middle eastern recipe for okra soon, it’s a staple veggie here.

  25. When I moved from South Carolina to Southern California last year, I pretty much had to give up fresh okra. Most people in Cali don’t even knows what it is! I’m looking forward to trying your recipe…it looks delicious. Thanks, Adam!

  26. I’ve always wanted to try fried okra, and this mouth-watering post only further fuels my curiosity.

  27. I’ve never had the opportunity to try okra. Yes, I’ve heard all the negative, slimy comments but I’m sure that frying takes that away. I will give them a try one day and determine for myself.

  28. Adam, you are one devoted okra lover! I also grew up eating okra, but not just on my birthday. We grew some on the side of the house one summer and delivered a bumper crop. That meant fried okra every night with dinner. Every. Night. While I definitely learned I do not want to EVER plant okra again, I am a fan of eating it. Especially in the summer with a thick slice of tomato. Just writing this has made me hungry. Gonna go find my cast iron skillet…
    BTW – thanks for following my little blog. ;)

  29. I loove okra!!! I grew up eating it, and since I wont make it back to home to Texas this summer, Your blog just made me realize how much I will miss my dose of fried okra. I will have to bring LA up to speed on this!

  30. Fried okra makes me happy. Such a delicious and comforting food.

    Oh, and about the cake. You HAVE to try this one: http://crumbsandcookies.blogspot.sg/2012/07/elvis-cake.html

    Banana cake, with caramelized banana filling, peanut butter frosting, and topped with crumbled bacon. All those bananas makes it healthy, right?

  31. I have loved okra ever since I was a little kid eating it the way grandma would cook it. I understand that most people try to harvest around the 3-4 inch size, which if wanting to cook the whole pod that is best. However I find that pod even up to nearly a foot long have wonder taste and cook well. At least part of them. If you are a home gardner and cannot keep up with the growth don’t worry. Let them grow. When large and hard cut the stem end off completely and then slice lengthwise in half. This will expose the seeds. You can then peal the skin of the pod ( it is very hard and fiberous at this point) the seeds will be exposed. Try taking the seeds and add them to soups, spagetti sauce, and stir fry. No slime and very tasty, with a light crunch almost like fresh corn.

    • Interesting, Coinrat. Admittedly, the larger pods have always ended up in my composter. On a related note, I went to an Okra Festival a few years back and an area farmer was selling long (at least 8-10 inch pods). Fortunately, for him (and for me), he also brought along a deep fryer and some salt and cornmeal. I don’t know what variety this was, but it was very tender and smooth. Delicious.

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