Okra from the East and West

Cook, Fire Smoke & Flavor, Ingredient Spotlight, Regional Spotlight

Nothing speaks to barbecue-style soul food like Southern fried okra. In my house we ate it like popcorn: my mom would smother it in cornmeal, fry it, then throw it in a paper towel–lined bowl to munch on during a movie. We also ate okra as part of a big pot of seafood gumbo.

 

John Currence, chef at Oxford, Mississippi’s City Grocery, grew up eating okra at his grandparents’ house in the Carolinas. “Okra was prepared in a myriad of ways,” he says. “They pickled it to preserve it, made straight boiled okra, stewed okra and tomatoes and, of course, fried okra.”

 

At his restaurant, Currence says, the kitchen is focused on efficiency. But at home he likes to make fried okra the old-fashioned way. “I love to make the cornmeal mix and put it in a brown paper bag, then add the okra and shake everything together,” he says. “It takes me back.”

 

Currence serves fried okra as an appetizer (recipe below), which he recommends pairing with a creamy, tangy ranch dressing. He salts the okra and lets it rest for an hour before cooking it. “That salt will infuse itself into the okra and pick up all the flavors,” he explains.

 

The best okra always comes from your own garden. “I tell everybody, if you want to feel like the most prodigious farmer in the world, plant okra and cucumbers,” says Currence. “You can’t kill them.”

 

When it comes to injecting new life and flavors into okra, Currence turns to Chef Vishwesh Bhatt, who heads the kitchen at City Grocery’s sister restaurant, Snackbar. Bhatt was born in India and grew up eating okra stir-fried, stuffed and seasoned with entirely different flavors.

 

“To me, what’s great about okra is that it came west with African migration, but it also went east,” says Bhatt. “There’s a common connection between the East and West, because they were sharing some of the same foods. The world is a lot smaller than we think.”

 

In India, okra is commonly seen served with lentils and yogurt sauce, fried (no cornmeal!) with fenugreek seeds or marinated and grilled whole (recipe below). “That’s a nice way of featuring whole okra,” Bhatt says. “I grew up spicing it with garam masala, but you can also do simply salt, pepper and lime juice. The grilling just brings out a different, smoky flavor.”

 

Worried about the dreaded okra slime? Avoid adding any extra moisture, don’t steam it and don’t skimp on the oil when frying. “The okra doesn’t absorb the oil,” swears Bhatt. “It keeps it from sliming up, and you can always use a slotted spoon to drain it.”

 

Here are some more of the chefs’ innovative ways to use okra this season:

  • “We do okra in green onion vignettes, which are more like an okra fritter. It makes a nice appetizer but remains patently Southern.”  — Chef Currence
  • “Cut it longways in thin strips and fry it, not battered; it gets crispy like okra chips. Then sprinkle chaat masala, onions, cilantro, lime juice, maybe a little sugar, and toss it all together. It makes a nice salad.”  — Chef Bhatt

 

 

Fried Okra (Chef John Currence)

 

1 lb. okra, each 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds

Kosher salt

Peanut oil for frying

 

For the flour mix:

2 cups flour

2 tsp. onion powder

1 1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

 

For the egg wash:

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup milk

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

 

For the cornmeal mix:

1 1/2 cups cornmeal

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp. onion powder

2 tsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. smoked paprika

 

Sprinkle the okra slices with salt. Mix the flour mix and cornmeal mix ingredients in separate bowls and set aside. Whisk together the egg wash and set aside.

 

In a medium pot, heat peanut oil to 350°F. Working in manageable batches, place the okra in the flour mix and coat well. Remove from flour and knock as much loose flour off as possible.

 

Dunk the okra into the egg wash and coat well. Remove from wet mix and allow to drip briefly. Place in the cornmeal mix and coat fully.

 

Carefully drop the coated okra into the hot oil and fry until golden brown. Repeat with the remaining okra.

 

Serve immediately, with homemade ranch dressing for dipping. Serves 6.

 

Ranch Dressing

 

3 cups mayonnaise

2 cups buttermilk

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

1/2 cup celery leaves, chopped

1 1/2 tsp. celery salt

2 Tbs. lemon juice

3 Tbs. dijon mustard

3 Tbs. grated onion

2 Tbs. grated garlic

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

 

In a large bowl, whisk together all the ingredients and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Makes about 5 1/2 cups.

 

 

Grilled Okra (Chef Vishwesh Bhatt)

 

1 lb. medium okra, cleaned

1 Tbs. garam masala (preferably homemade)

Zest and juice of 2 limes

1 tsp. minced garlic

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

1 lime, cut into 8 wedges

 

In a bowl, toss the okra with all the other ingredients except the cilantro and lime wedges, and let marinate for 2 hours.

 

Light a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill.

 

Grill the okra until slightly charred and just soft. Garnish with the chopped cilantro and serve immediately with the lime wedges. Serves 4.

 

About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.

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