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.
Classic Southern Fried Okra
2 lbs. – Fresh okra
1 cup – White or yellow cornmeal
Salt & black pepper**
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.