When asked to name four iconic Southern foods, most folks outside the South, or new to the South, will reel off fried chicken, barbecue, pimento cheese and okra.
I could live pretty well on those four, plus shell beans, collards, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and summer corn. Bet that you could too.
Okra may be the most misunderstood of those foods. Okra, more than likely, was brought to the American South by Ethiopian slaves. It is another of those great foods that had a dark beginning in our country, yet has endured as an icon of our Southernness. Usually, okra gets a reaction of “OMG! It’s slimy.” When boiled or sautéed, it is and I hate it that way. My parents loved boiled okra and I endured it.
For a long time, I wouldn’t let any form of okra cross my lips. Then I discovered fried okra with its crispy cornmeal coating and faint flavor of one of my favorite foods, oysters.
Since discovering a form I love, I’ve learned a few other okra tricks as well. Okra adds flavor, balance and thickening to gumbos and stews; that slime disappears in those preparations. Skewer some okra and grill them, drizzle them with a little balsamic vinegar and you have a tempting snack that makes you want another beer. Pickled okra – now that’s a thing of beauty. I’ve stuffed pickled okra with pimento cheese and watched Yankees go crazy over them. Pickled okra is the perfect garnish for a Bloody Mary. I even use them in martinis instead of an olive. I guess that makes them an “okra-tini,” but gin and okra marry nicely. You should check out my food writing colleague, Andrea Weigl’s book “Pickles & Preserves” for a great and simple pickled okra recipe.
Fried okra, though, is my true love. One thing I cannot condone is the coating falling off. To me, that creates a greasy mess and nothing is worse. This recipe has a simple trick that I guarantee will make your coating stick and yield a nice, crunchy result. Choose small sized okra, a little longer than your thumb. Larger ones can be tough and fibrous. I buy okra at the farmers market or with my CSA. Look for firm and bright green pods. Okra will keep refrigerated for about three days.
I’ve also taken to the somewhat chefy-looking lengthwise cut as opposed to the traditional cross-cut. Either way, this recipe works great and gives you a flavorful and crisp coating.
So if you have been on the fence about okra, give this recipe a try. You’ll be amazed at how addictive fried okra can be.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “The Kamado Grill Cookbook.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fred Thompson’s Fried Okra
1 quart fresh okra
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups plain yellow cornmeal (not cornmeal mix), stone-ground preferred
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Lard, bacon fat or canola oil for frying
Clean the okra and cut into 1/2 inch rounds or slice lengthwise.
Place the okra in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with the flour. Toss the bowl to evenly coat the okra. Place in a strainer to knock off any excess. This coating should be very light. Return to the mixing bowl and stir in the beaten egg making certain that each piece of okra is coated. Pour the cornmeal into another mixing bowl. Add the salt and pepper. Working a handful at the time, place the okra in the cornmeal and toss with your hands until each piece is coated. Place on a wire baking rack while you coat the remainder of the okra.
Take a large cast iron skillet or sauté pan with 3-inch sides. I prefer to use lard and a little bacon fat; you can use canola oil, if you prefer. You want about 1/2 inch oil or melted fat in the skillet over medium heat. Bring the fat or oil up to between 375 and 400 degrees; checking with a thermometer. Transfer the coated okra a handful or so at a time into the hot oil and fry until the pieces are golden, about 3-5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Continue until all the okra is fried. Then get it to the table as fast as you possibly can.
Yield: 4-6 servings.