A Southern classic

September 10, 2008

At markets throughout the Southeast, you find okra piled into two-toned heaps of mossy green and magenta, so vibrant that passing it up feels downright ungrateful. I never do. Instead, as okra reaches its seasonal peak in late summer, I start worrying about whether I’ll find the time to cook everything I have planned for it.

This might sound loony to anyone whose sole experience with the stuff has involved a fryer bubbling with peanut oil, or who, disenchanted with okra’s mucilaginous tendencies, just can’t get past eating it any way except fried.

And yet, frying okra is probably the last thing I would do with it. I’m not saying I’d shun a plate of those crisp, crunchy little nuggets, but I think it does okra a disservice to obscure its elusive sweet, nutty flavor with all that batter and oil.

Fresh green okra pods.

One of my favorite preparations for okra is also incredibly simple: grilled. Quick, high heat renders okra tender, crunchy, and, if you use a charcoal grill, deliciously smoky. Grilling also deters the release of those sticky juices that seem to offend so many people.

Thread whole okra onto skewers, brush with oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and then grill over medium-hot coals for three or four minutes, turning once. They’re delicious as is, but fantastic drizzled with a punchy aïoli.

For those who really want their okra fried, however, I’ve come up with a lighter, less labor-intensive version, with no oil splatters to clean up. Cut okra pods into 1/2-inch slices, then toss with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, red pepper flakes if you like a little extra heat, and enough stone-ground coarse cornmeal to coat each slice (the cut pieces should release enough juices for the cornmeal to stick). Sauté in a bit of peanut or sunflower oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over high heat until lightly browned in spots and crunchy, usually about four to five minutes.

When you’re buying fresh okra, look for tender pods without any dark spots; they should be bright green or even fuchsia-colored. Some cooks maintain that the larger specimens have more flavor, but I prefer smaller pods, no greater than three to four inches in length, which are less fibrous and small enough to cook whole.

And when in doubt, try one on the spot: Really top-notch okra should be delicious raw. Yes, raw.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Fearless Kitchen on Sep 19, 2008 at 7:45 AM PDT

Pickled okra is another use for this vegetable that I personally really like. Okra is one of my favorite vegetables, but it’s hard to find people who share my passion so it doesn’t get served here often.

2. by rajani@eatwritethink on Jan 12, 2010 at 10:00 PM PST

for me it was a revelation that okra is treated with much skepticism in the western world. in india and much of south asia, okra is every day food. we make gravied curries, fry and dunk them in yoghurt, make stir fries with them, stuff them with ground masalas. and its great :) while making stir fries its cooked on high uncovered and once all the slime evaporates, reduce to sim and cook until the raw taste disappears. just dont add salt until its almost ready. u can season with cumin, coriander, chilly, and turmeric if you have some!

3. by PAULA von der heide on Oct 24, 2012 at 10:11 PM PDT

The little pods are pretty delicious picked right off the plant!

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