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Sunday, May 26

Gapers Block

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I can't help but find a sad hint of irony that as tens of thousands of New Orleans residents are struggling to survive and hoping to hear soon how they will be able to rebuild their lives, Chicago-area farmers are starting to pluck okra off their plants and sell it at local markets.

I got a touch misty when I spied a beautiful pile of okra sitting on one Illinois farmer's table this past Saturday. I remembered distinctly my favorite Bloody Mary at a small bar in New Orleans. Along with a lemon wedge, two jumbo green olives and a stick of celery, I also got a small pickled okra pod in my cocktail. It was the perfect drink to revive me as I unwound from a very long trip via Amtrak. And while the drink was delicious, the pod seemed odd to me and it was only at the prompting of our server that I nibbled on the tip of it. I knew quite a bit less about food then and had only had badly prepared okra, so I was squeamish and convinced I didn't like it. But this vinegary treat delighted me far more than I imagined, and I finished it quickly.

So as I continue to hear, read, and listen to shocking stories of inhumanity and massive loss, I can't help but want to focus on replicating many of my pleasant memories of New Orleans by cooking. And since okra just happens to be coming into season, it seems like the perfect item to write about.

The word "gumbo" is actually the Swahili word for okra. It was brought over by Africans who were traded into slavery. Its historical culinary importance is due to it being a highly nutritious food, easy to grow, and an example of a plant that easily produces bumper crops. The okra plant had other uses besides food for slaves. The seeds were dried and ground before being added to water to serve as a coffee substitute. The leaves were ground and turned into a poultice for both skin wounds and bruises and sore muscles. And okra pods were used to lubricate the uterine passage to induce abortion.

The okra plant is a cousin of the hibiscus. It's one of the few vegetables that are edible only in its unripe form. The edible portion of the plant is the seedpod. They grow quickly and should be plucked off once they get to between 2-3 inches. Pods larger than that tend to be a bit bitterer and much tougher. Since you're likely not growing them, look for smaller pods when getting them from the store or market.

They should be solidly green. If you see black tips or black ridges, pass them by. They don't last long once they're plucked and the older they are, the mushier they are. Store them in a plastic bag in your vegetable bin (or at least at the bottom of your fridge) for no more than 2-3 days. If you're not going to be able use them right away, you'll want to blanch them and freeze them. To do this, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Clean and cut off the stems, but not the caps. Once the water is boiling, dump in the okra and cover the pan. Let them cook for 4 minutes before removing them from the pan and dropping them in an ice water bath. Let them sit in the ice water for 4-5 minutes before shaking them off and sticking them in a zipper bag. They'll keep for up to one year.

When cooking okra, be sure not to cook it in a pan made of iron, brass, or copper. The metal doesn't change the flavor of okra, but it does cause it to darken. Stainless steel is fine, as are Teflon coated aluminum pans.

Okra is the most important ingredient in the dish we call gumbo. Okra produces a mucilaginous juice (a tastier word for slime) that acts as a thickening agent for this stew-like concoction of vegetables, seafood and sausage. But this slime is what turned me and many first-time eaters of okra off.

The easiest but least healthful way of eliminating the slime in okra is to cut it into bite-sized chunks, rinse it, dry it, and then bread it and deep fry it. You can probably also find bags of breaded okra rings in your freezer that are ready to be dropped into your Fry Daddy. If you like deep-fried okra, but don't have any desire to fry food, you can replicate the texture by trimming off the ends, slicing them length-wise, rinsing an drying them, dipping them into an egg that has been beaten, and then rolling it in cornmeal that has been seasoned salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of cayenne. Place them on a baking sheet so they don't touch each other and bake at 375 degrees until they're golden brown and crunchy. Spritz with a light coating of cooking oil and stir once or twice during the half hour it should take for these to cook. These also make a great garnish to add to the top of any of the dishes listed below.

One of the more common mistakes people make when cooking okra is thinking that if you cut okra up into smaller pieces it will be less slimy. But quite the opposite is true. The more you cut the okra, the slimier it gets. So by trimming off the caps and the very tips and not actually cutting into the capsule before cooking the whole pods, you eliminate the slime. Diligently checking to make sure it doesn't overcook will also prevent or at least reduce slime production.

And if you aren't a fan of eggplant, you can replace okra for eggplant in many recipes. The flavor is similar but much less bitter, the cooking times are similar, and so is the cooked texture.

But since okra does cause a great deal of thickening, you can always use this to your advantage. Adding sliced okra to soups, stews, and casseroles eliminates the need for other thickening agents (flour, filé, corn starch, etc.) And by disguising them in wet dishes, their offending juices won't be noticed.

Here are a few recipes that might help you enjoy this vegetable. Smothered Okra Cajun-style, Gumbo du Monde, Pickled Okra, Okra Pilau and Okra in Spicy Peanut Sauce.

Smothered Okra Cajun-Style
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1 pound of okra pods that have been cleaned and sliced into bite-sized pieces
2-3 large fresh tomatoes that have been chopped, or 1 16 oz. can of whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon of vinegar (any kind will work)

Into a saucepan over medium heat, add the onion and olive oil. Stir occasionally until the onion has softened and started to turn translucent. Reduce the heat as low as you can get it and all the other remaining ingredients. Cook on low for about 20 minutes, or until the okra is fork tender. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve over steamed rice. Leftovers can be stored in the freezer and used later as a base for gumbo.

Gumbo du Monde
I could shamelessly steal Chuck's recipe, but I feel the need to let someone who does this recipe so much more justice than I could get all the credit. It's the definitive dish that involves the use of okra (although he provides substitutions using filé). And his instructions are lengthy and very well explained. While you're there, he has many other recipes that have inspired me, so head there and check them out.

Pickled Okra
1 pound of okra washed and with the excess stems cut off.
1-1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar)
1/4 cup of water
1 heaping tablespoon of kosher or large grain sea salt (if using finely ground salt, reduce to 1 teaspoon)
2 dried or fresh chili peppers
2 cloves of garlic, peeled

Add the vinegar, water and salt to a saucepan over high heat. Add in your okra and chili peppers and bring to roiling boil. Cook for one or two minutes before turning off the heat. Be careful not to burn yourself as you pour the ingredients into a glass jar that can be tightly sealed. Drop in the cloves of garlic and screw on the cap. Place it in the back of your refrigerator for at least two months. Keep stored in your refrigerator until gone. These will pretty much keep indefinitely. This recipe can be increased if you really, really like pickled okra and wish to can a lot of it.

Okra Pilau
Pilau is a Swahili rice dish in which the rice is cooked in a seasoned broth with vegetables and meat.

3 slices of bacon that have been chopped
2 cups of okra that have been sliced and rinsed
1 red or green bell pepper that has been seeded and finely chopped
1 medium sized onion that has been chopped
1 cup of long-grain white rice
2 cups of chicken broth
2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup of shredded chicken pieces
1 16 oz can of chopped tomatoes or 3 large fresh tomatoes that have been chopped

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, start to cook the chopped bacon. After a minute or two when some of the fat is rendered out, add in your okra. Once the bacon is fully cooked and the okra has browned, add in the bell peppers and the onions. Cook these until they're just barely tender, making sure to stir frequently so food doesn't stick or burn. Now add in your rice, chicken broth and salt and stir so it is thoroughly mixed. Let this come to a boil before reducing the heat to medium, stirring well, and covering the skillet with a lid. After about 15 minutes of cooking (lift the lid as rarely as possible) the rice should be cooked through and most of the liquid should be gone. Remove the lid, stir in the can of tomatoes. Once they're warm, fluff the rice with a fork and serve with a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

To make this a vegan dish, omit the bacon and replace with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Omit the chicken broth and chicken and replace with vegetable broth and chopped seitan.

Okra in Spicy Peanut Sauce
1 medium onion sliced thinly
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger
1/2 of a diced jalapeno
1/4 teaspoon of ground turmeric (this doesn't provide much flavor, but it does bring a wonderful brownish orange color to dishes)
2 tablespoons of peanut butter
1 chopped tomato
1 pound of okra with the stems removed
salt and pepper to taste

In a skillet over medium high heat, add the onion and vegetable oil. Cook until the onions have gone soft and are starting to brown. This should take about 10-12 minutes, so make sure to stir frequently. Now stir in the garlic, ginger, jalapeno, turmeric and peanut butter. Add the chopped tomato and cook until the tomato seems warm, about a minute or two. Add in your okra and stir until they're evenly coated. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover with a lid, and simmer for about 7-8 minutes. Add salt and pepper as needed.

To make this dish a vegan one-pot meal, cut a block of tofu lengthwise into 8 slices. Place on top of a few layers of paper towels on a baking sheet. Add a few more layers of paper towels on top of the tofu and another baking sheet with a few cans to weigh it down. After about 10-15 minutes most of the water should be extracted from tofu. Chop each of these pieces in half and add to the pot at the same time you add the okra. Stir carefully to keep from breaking apart the tofu. This dish goes great served over brown rice or white.

Hopefully these few dishes get you inspired to try an ingredient that makes many cooks nervous. The subtle flavor, inexpensive price, and health benefits combine to make this an ingredient worth a little experimentation.

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