The weather is getting cooler now, and I can tell that Fall is upon us. The leaves have begun to trade their brilliant green hues for softer yellows, reds and browns and then make their final journey to the ground. The air grows crisp in the mornings and the first rains are falling from the heavens, and my body, in turn, begins to yearn for clothes that cling softly to my skin, down comforters, closed-toed shoes and food that warms my soul.
Fall is, by far, my favorite season. The smells, the chill in the air, the colors, the feeling of a new beginning (perhaps this feeling should come in Springtime, but for someone who has been in school now for almost 17 years, Fall is when everything begins anew), but it's also about the food. This may have been why I began my little food blog in the Fall, a little over one year ago. I find I don't mind spending long hours in the kitchen since it is far cooler than it has been the last few months. And the food at the market is food that brings back so many good memories and is as ripe with childhood nostalgia as it is with flavor. Apples, grapes, eggplant, mushrooms, figs, and heavy, red tomatoes. At the grocery store, I find my choices are now leaning towards richer, heavier foods...picking out free-range chickens for both dinner and batches of homemade chicken stock, spices like sage and thyme, heady cheeses, and thick, hearty breads.
The last time I was home, I sat with my grandmother (my dad's mother, not the one who recently passed away) and we dove through her recipes and cookbooks, seeking out her favorites and my favorites and the ones that she wanted to pass down to me since she knows how much I love to cook, and she isn't able to do the cooking any longer. There were recipes for casseroles of all kinds, yeast breads and rolls, ethnic recipes (Guamanian chicken is one that I'll share later, from when she lived in Guam), and several of her own mother's dishes.
What I remember most about the time spent with my grandmother in my childhood are the breakfasts - lots of fresh biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, and bacon. But secondary to those feasts, I remember the trips to Texas. My grandmother was the second oldest child in a family with 8 children. She was born in Texas and many of her siblings still reside all over the state. We used to go there for family reunions when I was younger. And Lord, can those Texans cook! Anything fried was certainly a specialty, but my favorite? Fried okra. Nobody, and I mean, nobody, can make fried okra taste like a Texan can. And lucky me? There's been loads of these fresh, green pods at the Farmer's Market, nestled in with all that gorgeous Fall produce.
My first attempt at fried okra, via grandma's word of mouth and the way her family has always cooked it, is what follows. And it's delicious. It's not healthy, but sometimes family recipes trump healthy, and anyway, who cares if it's healthy? It's freakin' delicious! Besides, since it is Fall, we should be storing up for Winter, right? Beware making too large of quantities of this - it goes down like popcorn and it's difficult to stop eating it.
Eakin Family Fried Okra, recipe courtesy of Evelyn Baysinger
Now, here's the secret: Cook 1/2 lb - 1 lb of your favorite smoked bacon in a heavy pan (cast iron would be ideal) until crisp. Remove the bacon and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the bacon for another use, and reserve the bacon grease to cook your okra in (Aha! That's why it tastes so delicious!). Keep the heat at a moderate heat, then if you have fresh okra pods, cut them into 1/2" pieces and put them directly in the bowl with the egg. Mix until all of the pieces of okra are coated well. Pick them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the bag with the four/cornmeal mixture. Close up the bag and shake it gently until all the okra is coated with the flour mixture. Pick a good handful of okra out and shake off the excess flour (there won't be much), then add it to the pan with the bacon grease. Fry the okra until it turns golden brown on all sides, turning as needed. Drain the grease off the okra on a paper towel and repeat, cooking the rest of the okra. Attempt to restrain from eating the entire plate full.
I served the okra with Chicken with Lots of Garlic, turnips with bread crumbs and parsely, and wilted turnip greens. For dessert, Great-grandma's Date Nut Loaf Cake (I'll post this one soon too).