Sunday, September 14, 2008

Overlooked Farmer's Market Bounty #2

Summer's not done yet, folks, and some of the best produce is peaking right now at the markets. Okra is one of my favorite vegetables in late August and all through September. At my favorite vegetable monger's stand, I seem to be one of the only people digging through the bins looking for choice specimens. It's me and a smattering of Caribbean and African ladies. Yup, I just used the word "monger."

Classic okra dishes in this country include gumbo and fried okra (simply dipping them in buttermilk, rolling in salted cornmeal and frying). I love a dish called Purloo, an African baked rice dish that is loaded with okra. I got that recipe from the NY Times Dining section a few years ago. In Africa okra is shredded and used in soups both for flavor and as a thickener. And Bhindi Masala is one of my favorite south Indian dishes. I will never forget the version I was served in Kerala just over 10 years ago. It was fiery hot but mellowed with a bit of coconut milk.

Okra is full of vitamins and minerals, it's a versatile ingredient, and it tastes great. So why aren't you cooking with okra? My guess is that you don't like the "goo" that comes out when you chop it. Or maybe you find okra to be a little tough. Or maybe you don't have a simple recipe that features okra - all of them that I mentioned above require a bit of work. Well let's deal with all of these issues lickety-split, because you there are only a few more weeks of okra (in my neck of the woods, anyway), and you need to bring this into your life.

First of all, look for okra that are bright green and free of blemishes. There are small hairs on the outside that are actually quite prickly when the okra are fresh. It's not unusual to wear a plastic bag on your hand when picking out okra. Bigger okra can be tough, even if you deep fry them. Dig through the bin, parrying the expert fingers of the Caribbean ladies, and take the small okra. I don't like them to be bigger than the smallest one in the picture.

Secondly, the goo. When you cook okra, there is going to be some goo, and that's just life, so roll with it. When you get comfortable with okra, and if you enjoy it enough, you might incorporate this into your dishes - it's a natural thickener for stews, soups, or sauces. Imagine pureeing stewed okra with hot chilis and coconut milk, and using that to stew some chicken thighs or chunks of beef.

If the goo really bothers you, you can minimize it by cooking the okra with lots of acid. For example, and here's maybe the simplest okra recipe in the world, chop the okra and stew them in good canned tomatoes, garlic, salt, and one fresh serrano or jalepeno chili pepper that you poke holes in with a fork. If you use small okra, this will be tender and delicious in 15 minutes total, the goo mitigated by the acids in the tomatoes. Some rice or a baguette, a nice Alsace Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris, and you're all set.

Lately I've been pickling okra. Not for long term storage, quick pickles that last in the fridge for a few weeks. They work as an accompaniment to most any late summer meal. They also make really nice gifts when you're invited to dinner or brunch. Pickling okra is utterly simple, and you can experiment with spices to come up with your own okra pickle. Here's mine:

You need one glass jar with a good seal, washed and dried. About a pound of okra, small ones only, washed and patted dry. Boil in a heavy pot about a half cup of water and 3/4 cup white vinegar. Saturate this solution with salt and sugar. I prefer a more salty okra pickle, so I use about 1/3 cup of kosher salt and a bit less of sugar. You can play with the ratio, though.

While this is coming to a boil, put the okra in the jar. I find it easier if you begin by putting them upside down, then add a second layer right side up. Add seasonings to the okra in the jar before you pour in the boiling brine. I add chunks of fresh garlic, whole black peppercorns, dried chili pepper, a bay leaf, and coriander seeds. Pour in the boiling brine. Allow the water to settle in, top off a bit, and seal the jar. Put it in the fridge and forget about it for a few days, then dig in. The bottle at left has been opened and some of the brine spilled out - the liquid level should be higher.These are great with fried fish, sandwiches, anywhere you'd eat a pickle. My 19 month old daughter walks around the house eating them by themselves.

Here's a link to Overlooked Farmer's Market Bounty #1 - Fava Beans.


Anonymous said...

That Okra really looks good!
I'm not familiar with cooking it. It is harder to come by here in France.
What would you think about serving red with it? I would think with the bitterness of the green vegetal-ness, it might work rather well especially with those added spices! (this is making me hungry...)

Brooklynguy said...

hey salty - maybe a touraine gamay or a lighter saumur-champigny...filliatreau's 2007 printemps perhaps?