Friday, August 6, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Traditional Southern Pan-Fried Okra, a Primer

And now from the sublime to the . . . well, equally sublime: here’s how I fry okra.  Here’s how okra has always been cooked in the American South when it’s fried, insofar as I understand the culinary ways of my part of the country. 

First you have to get the okra.  If you have a garden and are growing it this summer, you’re in luck: it adores the kind of heat we’ve been having in much of the nation this summer.  It’s an African contribution to American local cuisines, and is loved around the Mediterranean basin.  It’s a hot-climate vegetable, in other words, one reputed to have a cooling effect “in the blood,” including the effect of lowering blood pressure.  One of Steve’s and my favorite okra recipes is a Greek recipe that calls for chicken to be stewed in okra, tomatoes, and onions with liberal amounts of olive oil and lemon juice—a Mediterranean preparation, in other words (and a whole other story). 

If you’re growing your own okra, you know that the most succulent, tender, and tasty okra you’ve ever cooked comes from your own garden.  You also know that one of the drawbacks of a vegetable that bears in the heat of summer is that it must be picked in the heat of summer, when one is least inclined to be out in a hot, sticky garden grappling with growing things and the insects that love them.  There’s a tradition—how well-grounded, I don’t know—that if you don’t cut the stalk on which each okra pod grows as you harvest that pod, the plant will stop producing.  

Picking okra is work.  And you have to keep at it day after day, since it matures quickly and the pods become woody and inedible overnight.  There’s an art to picking a pod right at its peak of maturity, before it edges over into toughness.  And none of this is even to mention that other quality of garden-grown okra: the entire plant has tiny needles that prickle the skin as you rub against leaf, stem, and okra pods.  In the hot sun, picking okra can quickly become well-nigh unbearable due to that problem alone, if you have sensitive skin.

So you’ve gotten your okra.  And you’re proud of yourself, since this meal was hard-won, given the heat, humidity, bugs, and prickles.

Wait.  You’re not growing okra in your own garden?  So buy some.  If you can find it in the store, that is.  And there’s the rub for many folks in many areas of the world.  When I describe the vegetable to my German friends, not knowing the word in German, some of them eventually light up with surprise and say, “Ach ja!”  And then they tell me it’s a Greek food not often found in Germany.

Or in the northern part of the U.S., for that matter, outside specialty shops.   And in Canada.  When I went to grad school in Toronto in 1978 and found that okra simply didn’t exist in most grocery stores, I felt bereft.  Bereft of one of those tiny pieces of home that become home for a person living away from home, in a strange land.

And then I found that the Caribbean stands at glorious Kensington Market sold okra.  It’s a staple of Caribbean cuisine as of Southern cooking, because of their shared African roots.  It’s a tiny piece of home for people of African descent living the long exile of displacement created by slavery in the areas of the world to which transported Africans were brought to be sold as human chattel.

So you’ve found your source, and are setting out to buy okra.  What do you look for?  The pods should be firm but tender, and distinctly green—not an off-color of green mixed with brown.  They should not have black spots, and they shouldn’t be wrinkled.  If they feel woody when you poke your thumbnail into the larger pods (choose a moment when the grocer’s eyes are averted), avoid them like the plague.

Buy firm, tender, green pods.  And cook them as soon as possible.  If your intent is to fry the okra (there are, of course, many other ways to cook it), then buy more than you need—a generous amount more—because fried okra cooks down, and you will always end up with a tinier amount than you imagined as you prepared the okra when you fry the vegetable.  If you fry it as it should be fried.

You’re back in the kitchen with your okra and ready to prepare it for frying.  Having washed it, cut off the little ring at the blossom end of the pod, the blunt and not pointed end of the pod.  Discard this.  Then slice the okra across the pod into rings about a half inch wide.  If you get the rings too wide, they won’t fry well.  

This is a traditional pan-frying recipe, not a recipe for deep-fried okra.  The abominable fried okra most restaurants now serve when they serve “old-timey Southun kuntry cookin’” is often thickly cut precisely to allow the okra to stand up under the process of deep-frying.  And it’s heavily breaded for the same reason.

And tasteless for the very same reason.

You have your okra sliced into rings.  Now salt it fairly liberally—not so much to make it excessively salty, but enough to enhance the flavor and help the okra begin to release moisture so that the cornmeal you’ll add next will stick to it.  Add pepper to taste, too.

About the moisture: many people object to okra because it can have a distinctly mucilaginous quality that disconcerts adults introduced to it for the first time.  That quality diminishes when okra is properly cooked.  It is a desirable component of a gumbo precisely because the okra’s juice helps thicken the gumbo. 

(I’m told that the word “gumbo” has west African roots and means “okra” in some west African dialects.  Many dishes other than the Creole gumbos of south Louisiana have traditionally been called gumbos in the South, because they contain okra.  My grandmother called a dish of sliced okra stewed with tomatoes, onion, and peppers and served over rice a gumbo, as do old cookbooks from Georgia and Carolina that I’ve read.)

Because many people have met okra only as a slimy mess when the pods were boiled whole, without care or seasoning, they see it as inedible and slimy.  In my family, we never cooked okra that way.  When we did cook the pods whole, we placed them atop a pot of delicious crowder or purple hull peas, as the peas finished cooking, so that they absorbed the flavor of the smoky peas and ham, and so that their juices cooked into the peas.

When you pan-fry your okra, you will fry it to the point that the okra juices will be completely absorbed into the slices of fried okra.  You will have okra reduced to its essential, true, delicious flavor—the entire point of traditional Southern pan-fried okra.

So you’ve salted your okra slices.  Many cookbooks and websites will now tell you that the traditional way of breading the okra is to add a beaten egg or two or some other liquid to make the cornmeal adhere to the okra slices.  Don’t believe them.  This is not the traditional way in which fried okra has been made in the South.  It is an innovation that has crept in along with the shift from pan-frying to deep-frying.  The heavy breading that results from mixing the okra with egg or other liquids before mealing it disguises and detracts from the essential, true okra taste you want as your end result.

What you should do after salting and peppering your okra is this: tip into the bowl sufficient cornmeal (we use only white cornmeal—for everything) to cover each piece, and then a bit more.  Toss and stir and toss and stir some more.  And then set the bowl aside a while on the counter to let the salt begin to draw the juices of the sliced okra, and to let the meal adhere.

You will not end up with heavily breaded pieces of okra by using this traditional method.  If it’s heavy breading you want, this recipe will not work for you.  If it’s the taste of okra reduced to a glorious essence through loving pan-frying, then continue on.

After your okra has sat a while (say an hour), stir it again several times, trying to assure that every piece is dusted with cornmeal.  Some pieces will inevitably have more, and some less, breading.  That’s traditional for Southern fried okra.  The end product will be a plate of okra in which some pieces are browner and others slightly greener, some fried darker and some lighter, some with more meal and others with less.  That’s how it should be.  You should not end up with the uniform look of a plate of heavily breaded okra popped into a deep fryer.

Now it’s time to prepare the frying pan or pans (whether you use one or more depends on the amount of okra you’re frying).  Each pan should be sufficiently wide to contain one layer of okra packed closely into the pan.  Remember that it will cook down, leaving some room in the pan to work with the okra as it fries.

The traditional frying pan of the Southern batterie de cuisine is always black iron—long-used, well-seasoned black iron that is never washed with soap, and whose surface is shiny and smooth as a black pearl.  If you don’t have a black iron skillet, other heavy and sufficiently large skillets will do.

You’ve chosen your pan.  Now it’s time to decide what fat or oil you’ll use for the frying.  Here, the traditions I’ve inherited are unvarying: every household in which I grew up had on its stove a dripping can, into which the grease from fried bacon or ham was poured after breakfast, and also the fat skimmed from other dishes like pot roast.

The end product was a gloriously rich (and also saturated fat-laden) mix of several types of fat, bacon grease predominating, continuously replenished, which was used in all of our pan-fried dishes.  A spoon or two of the same fat was also frequently stirred into a dish of stewed vegetables of all kinds, to add flavor.

This is one part of my Southern culinary heritage with which I’ve broken rank.  I no longer cook extensively with animal fats, because 1) I just don’t eat much meat at all, 2) my cholesterol needs watching, and 3) we almost never eat bacon, which was the mainstay of those dripping cans.

I use vegetable oil to fry okra.  I would not use olive oil, though I use it for many other dishes, because its rich flavor would detract from the rich okra flavor with which I want to end up when I fry okra.  To those who don’t have bacon grease on hand, I recommend a light-flavored oil that handles high heat well, like peanut or canola oil.

Pour into the skillet just enough oil or fat to come up about halfway on the sides of the sliced okra, when you tip your okra into the skillet.  Pan-frying does not cover the entire product.  It’s a technique of slow frying by stages that uses just enough fat/oil to fry your dish, without swallowing the food up in oil.

Heat your oil to the hottest point you can achieve without smoking, and then immediately tip into the pan okra enough to cover the whole pan completely.  Use your spatula (Steve calls it a pancake turner; in his family, a spatula was what my family called a bowl scraper) to tamp the okra lightly down into the hot oil/grease.

Turn the heat down to medium high and then cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid.  Pan-frying combines both steaming and frying.  This is how it manages to seal in, preserve, and concentrate the flavor of what it cooks).  

Let the okra sizzle undisturbed for a few minutes—two or three—and then check to see how brown it has become on the underside, by turning over a piece or two.  If it is sufficiently brown, then turn the entire mass of okra as carefully as possible, putting the not-yet-fried green side into the oil.  You may find that it takes considerably longer to achieve browning than two or three minutes.  Everything depends on how tender your okra was to begin with and how hot the heat is.  

Be patient.  Well-fried okra takes more time, I find, than I usually estimate.  But the final result is worth the fiddling.

Now that you’ve turned it, let the okra fry on the other side.  This time, do not cover the pan.  Traditional Southern pan-frying requires covering the pan for the initial stage of frying, then removing the lid to allow the dish to crisp up, now that its flavors have been sealed in by the combination of frying and steaming.

Once again, after a few minutes, check a few pieces to see how brown your okra has become.  If it’s not yet as brown as you wish, keep frying it.  When it has begun to brown to your desires, you may wish to turn the okra again (and perhaps yet again) to try to fry all pieces as well as possible.

My mother called this technique “scrambling” the okra.  It produces in one frying pan some pieces of okra that are fried very crisp and others that are less crisp.  Some members of my family liked one type, other family members preferred the other.  The platter brought to the table satisfied us all, since it had okra pieces of both types.

If you do this right, you will become a believer—in okra, its magical qualities, and its wonderful flavor when fried correctly.  And you thought home-cooking was simple, mindless, not time-consuming and heedless of high skill and an artist’s soul?

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