Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Smothered Okra - a little Louisiana in Philly!

Okra - you get a bit of a look from most folks here in the North when you talk about okra.  Some folks are familiar with it, pickled and spicy and floating in a martini (frankly this was my biggest use 'cause a friend of ours used to send them);  there's fried okra - a walk along snack at fairs and the like; and we know very often it's in gumbo - but it is usually cooked down and used as a thickener.  The most common criticism is that okra is "slimy" - and if it's used in certain ways, it is.

We decided to try making "Smothered Okra".  It's a Louisiana favorite and we've had it there as a side dish. Our decision came about as we studied some gorgeous, purple, young okra at the Fair Food Farmstand.  The following illustrates our first attempt at making smothered okra - it was very, very delicious.  We had it with a bit of left over sable fish, but you can add shrimp (most popular version in LA) or chicken or some spicy sausage or all of those for an okra gumbo.  Okra is full of things that are good for you; it's delicious when handled correctly; and it's easy to grow in the city.  In fact Burpee offers a "compact" okra plant that can be grown in a container.  Okra will definitely be growing in our garden next year - and yes, I'll be pickling some for those martinis!

*Recipe:  Smothered Okra - the making of this dish, like so many old time dishes, is really more of a technique than a recipe.  You can play around with the ingredients, but I do suggest trying this basic recipe the first time - the aroma and the flavors will hook you on Okra!  Do note that frying okra and using a bit of vinegar combats sliminess and gives the okra a great mouth feel in the finished dish.  Also, this is NOT the time to pull out your favorite cast iron pan - cast iron turns okra black!

Ingredients:  (we made this recipe for 2; it is common in Louisiana to make huge batches of this and freeze it in small batches - that's definitely going to be next for us, while we can get great local okra).

1 tablespoon of canola oil; 1 pound fresh okra, cut into rings, toss the end pieces/stems; 1 teaspoon of white vinegar; 2 tablespoons of bacon fat; 2 tablespoons of flour; 1/4 of an onion, chopped; 1 small stalk of celery, chopped; 1 clove of garlic, chopped; 1 small bell pepper, chopped; 1 bay leaf; 1 teaspoon fresh thyme; 1 lg heirloom tomato, chopped (for bigger batches, you can use canned tomatoes or more fresh ones; we also threw in some of our sun gold tomatoes and some of our sweet pea currant tomatoes - it really depends on how "tomatoey" you want it); a dash of hot sauce; two dashes of Worcestershire sauce; and a 1/4 cup of tomato juice or, in our case, of Clamato.

Heat the oil in a saute pan.  Fry the okra rings over medium heat.  Add the vinegar as the okra fries - the vinegar eliminates the "sliminess" factor.  When the rings are browned, put them aside in a bowl.

Make a roux in the saute pan with the bacon fat and the flour - you want to cook the roux, stirring constantly, until the mixture is approaching dark brown.

Add the onion to the roux and saute until the onions are soft, slightly browned.

Then, add the celery, garlic, bell pepper, bay leaf and thyme - mix well.

Add the okra and the tomatoes.  Add the tomato juice or clamato, the hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper.  Cover the pan and simmer the mixture for 20 - 25 minutes; if it appears to be getting dry, just add a bit of water.

Serve over hot white rice.  Enjoy!

*Recipe adapted from The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, Poppy Tooker, ed.

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