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New faves for okra lovers. June 25, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Okra is one of those things: You either love it or hate it. I’ve never heard anyone say something like,”Oh, okra’s okay.” Being Southerners, our friend Ben and I grew up with okra and fall into the okra-lovers category.

Growing up in Nashville, our encounters with okra were limited to two types: okra fried in cornmeal (either whole or sliced), or whole boiled okra served with butter and salt (and lots of black pepper for the adults). We loved both, though of course fried okra was a special favorite, as long as it was made right and not dried out and tasteless, as it too often is if you order it in restaurants. Needless to say, fans of Creole and Cajun cooking are more likely to enjoy okra as an essential ingredient of gumbo, a word which is actually derived from an African word for okra. And plenty of folks down South enjoy a type of thick sliced okra-tomato stew served as a side dish or over rice.

Where OFB and I now live, in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, okra is pretty much nonexistent on restaurant menus and in local cuisine. I can’t remember ever seeing it. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw big bags of frozen sliced okra in my favorite Indian grocery store, Rice and Spice in nearby Emmaus, PA. I have to say, okra hadn’t featured prominently on menus at local Indian restaurants. But there had to be some reason why it was in the store. I determined to find out what it was.

Monica Bhide’s The Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Media, 2004) quickly showed me that we Southerners aren’t the only ones who love our fried okra. She gives recipes for a yummy-sounding snack, Spiced Crunchy Okra (Chatpati Bhindi*), where a delicious mix of spices and chickpea flour sub for the spiced cornmeal, and Fried Okra in Yogurt Sauce (Bhindi Ka Raita), where crispy fried okra meets yummy spiced yogurt. Mmmm!!! Bring ‘em on! Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking (Barron’s, rev. ed. 1995) revealed a flavorful stewed okra, Sweet and Sour Okra (Kutchhi Bhindi), that would rank high on the list of any Southerner’s must-try foods.

But I have an aversion to grease, so though I love to eat fried foods, making them is definitely out, and I was in the mood for a drier okra dish rather than a stew. Fortunately, both Madhur Jaffrey and Monica Bhide had delicious options for this diehard okra lover.

When I want true Indian comfort food, I’ll have the simplest possible meal: dal, plain basmati rice, and plain Greek yogurt (as a raita), sometimes with a little tamarind sauce and chutney on the side. So it cheered me to see Madhur Jaffrey say that, when she was “in the mood for some really soothing, comforting food,” she made dal, plain basmati rice, and ‘Dry’ Okra (Sookhi Bhindi).

To make Madhur Jaffrey’s dry okra, you can use a pound of fresh okra pods with the ends removed and sliced. Or the equivalent in frozen pre-sliced okra such as I found at Rice and Spice. Dice 1 medium sweet onion. She says to use a large non-stick frying pan set over medium-high heat, but I of course would use my heavy LeCreuset Dutch oven to make sure I had enough depth and the okra didn’t pour over the sides. Add 8 tablespoons vegetable oil and, when they’re hot, put in 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds. The second the seeds sizzle—and it just takes 10 seconds—add the onions and okra, spreading them evenly across the bottom of your pan. Fry for 10 minutes, stirring gently every now and then and making sure you spread and flatten the okra-onion mix out to completely cover the bottom of your pan after each stirring. When the onion begins to brown, turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook, stirring gently, for 5 minutes. Then add salt to taste, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin. 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon ground amchoor (dried green mango) or lemon juice, and 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper. Cook another 5 minutes, stirring or tossing gently, and serve.

Monica Bhide has a more elaborately spiced version called Fried Okra (Bharwan Bhindi), which is really more of a stuffed sauteed okra. It too sounds entirely delicious. I wish I were eating a plate of it (with basmati rice and plain yogurt) right now! Here’s the recipe:

               Fried Okra (Bharwan Bhindi)

1 1/2 pounds whole fresh okra, washed, stem ends removed

1 T powdered coriander

2 t powdered turmeric

1 1/2 t red chili powder (or to taste)

2 t garam masala

2 t powdered cumin

1 t dried mango (amchoor) powder (presumably you could sub lemon juice)

4 T vegetable oil

1 medium red onion, diced

1 T ginger-garlic paste

2 green serrano chilies, slit lengthwise

salt to taste

Make a lengthwise slit through each okra pod, being careful not to cut completely through the pods. Mix all the spices in a bowl. Using the tip of a knife or a tiny spoon, stuff a little bit of the dry spice mix into each okra pod. Heat the oil on medium in a large, heavy skillet (or, again, a heavy Dutch oven). Add the onion and ginger-garlic paste; saute about 3 minutes, until the onions are transparent. Add the okra and green chilies. Saute about 4 minutes. Add the salt and any remaining dry spice mixture. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add about 3 tablespoons of water, cover, and cook for about 10 minutes or until the okra is fork-tender. Serve hot.

Monica provides recipes for you to make your own fresh garam masala (Warm Spice Mix) and Ginger-Garlic Paste in The Everything Indian Cookbook. Thanks, Monica! What a great resource. But I’ll admit, I buy mine ready-made; you’ll naturally lose that fresh-ground or fresh-pounded flavor, but it certainly saves time.

Other favorite okra recipes, anyone?

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence 

*”Bhindi” is okra in (I, er, assume) Hindi.

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Comments»

1. Nell Jean - June 25, 2011

I would never have thought to add spices to okra, most definitely not cumin, but I can see it now.

Better than regular fried okra if it could be better is green tomatoes and okra fried together. One of my fav cooks used to fry green tomatoes and okra when the first pods of okra were ready but there weren’t enough to fry. Vegetable soup is definitely better with okra added. We add a few small okra pods to lima beans or field peas just before they are done.

Yum, Nell Jean, thanks so much for the suggestions! What a great idea to fry green tomatoes and okra up together! Speaking of fried green tomatoes, the Talbot Tavern in Bardstown, KY makes a signature fried green tomato BLT that is out of this world. Another brilliant idea!


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