When I was a kid, okra came in neat little cylinders battered in flour and fried to a brown crisp. It was my favorite thing to get at the now defunct and long-ago closed down Furrs Restaurant in my small, Colorado hometown. Furrs was a chain restaurant - the kind of chain restaurant with deep blue and black paisley carpeting, where you grabbed your cafeteria-style tray (always a pale yellow or brown or gray) and loaded it up as you went along with small, individual white diner plates of such home-syle favorites as roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, boiled corn, and of course, green or yellow or red jello for dessert (or if you got lucky, pale yellow tapioca with whipped cream from a can that day). The quality of the food was, I'm sure, highly questionable, but as kid that didn't matter...at Furrs, I could get as much okra as I wanted.
I remember snaking through the line, packing up my tray with a veritable buffet of all of the available goods - grandpa and grandma and dad and various aunts, uncles and cousins flanking me on either side. One by one, we'd reach the end of the line and filter out into the enormous dining room lit by replicas of antique chandeliers that cast a deep, golden light over the whole place. And we'd sit down at one of the long, 12-person tables and just catch up with each other. My parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember, and these weekend ventures to Furrs were one of my favorite past-times with my dad's side of the family. We always took the whole family to Furrs when no body felt like cooking.
I think my love of okra began with my grandma. She makes a mean batch of okra. She's from Texas and there is no one in the world that makes fried okra like grandma and her siblings. The recipe is simple: okra, cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and cayenne. Fry it in your favorite bacon grease (well, she is from Texas) and you're done. It's perfect that way. Not healthy, but still perfect.
Unfortunately, the first time I tried making okra without frying it was a complete and utter disaster. I think I tried making some kind of quick pickled okra or something from a Martha Stewart magazine, and as soon as I cut into the stuff, that slick, sticky slime that okra is known for came oozing out onto everything. It didn't go away after a good soak in the vinegar solution either. In fact, I think it made it worse. It was like eating snails (or worse, snot) - and I wasn't eating that. Since then, I've tended to stay away from okra unless I need a good little artery-clogging kick, which does happen sometimes. That was until I started this Eat Local Challenge and was handed over a gracious sack of okra pods from the overflow of a friend of a friend's organic garden - green and bright and with dirt still clinging to them.
I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I took it. I also took home an idea for what to do with it: they brought a cold okra salad made with curry powder and jalepeno peppers. Before inundating the okra with spices, there was first the matter of desliming it. I searched the internet for ideas and there were tons out there. I finally came across a woman on some food forum telling how her grandmother taught her to do it, and how she had done since. I was sold.
Here's the basic idea: Slice up your okra, put it in a saucepan and cover it with water. If it's a medium-sized saucepan, add about a 1/4 cup of vinegar to it (adjusting as necessary) and bring it to a boil. Simmer about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the spoon doesn't come out slimy when you stir it around the pot. Drain, and you're done. I used Aloha Cider Vinegar to deslime mine. Since I had recently run out of curry powder, I used cumin instead. Kona sea salt, pepper, a little macadamia nut oil, a touch more vinegar, and a locally grown hot pepper - and it was delicious. I paired it with an Island-produced pork leg steak - and there would have been Molokai sweet potatoes to go with it...if they didn't have plastic all over them.
Cumin-scented Warm Okra Salad, serves 4 - 6
- approx 20 large okra, sliced into 1/4" to 1/2" pieces (Oahu; friend's garden, free)
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. Apple Cider Vinegar (Aloha; Honolulu, Oahu; Longs $3.99)
- 1 tbsp. Hawaii's Gold Macadamia Nut Oil (Oils of Aloha; Wailua, Oahu; Foodland $9/12.7 oz.)
- 2 tsp. cumin
- pinch of Kona sea salt (Big Island; Kailua Farmer's Market; $9/bag)
- pepper, to taste
- 1 red hot pepper, finely diced (Oahu; Kailua's Farmer's market; $1.00/10)
Local Products and Places:
locally grown okra (from friends)
Kailua and KCC Farmer's Markets for hot peppers
Kona sea salt
Oils of Aloha Macadamia Nut Oil (Hawaii's Gold Pure Macadamia Oil)
Aloha Apple Cider Flavored Vinegar (though I must admit that the "flavoring" part scares me...)
To read more about the challenge, and find more local products, see these posts: 1, 2 and check the Eat Local Challenge website for updates on what's happening both locally and nationally.