For the first time, okra is making frequent appearances on New York's produce carts - following the star-making trail of fuyu persimmon, lychees and other mainstream crossover successes.
I know I have limited ability to divinate The Next Big Produce Thing, okra's popularity is surprising for an excellent reason: okra doesn't get a lot of love.
Some responses I've heard over the years: "Eww!" "Are you really gonna eat that?" and "Okra? Aren't they like slugs for vegetarians?"
My friend Maryann is an okra enthusiast, though she mainly enjoys okra in its New Orleans omnivore incarnations - gumbo (literally okra in Bantu), and jambalaya. Of course, it helps that she doesn't mind what others find objectionable about okra: the slime factor. "I like it all," she says.
I'm not as unambivalently pro-okra. I like okra pickles (hmm...I sense a potential blog entry!), which are crispy and non-slimy, but I'm put off by the slug-like texture that I associate with overcooked okra.
To learn more about okra's potential, I turned to Indian cuisine. I love Indian vegetarian food - could half a billion people be wrong? - but I admit that two decades of enjoying Indian food hasn't prompted me to order bhindi masala. (Okra vs. potatoes, lentils and flatbread? Nice try. Hard to find anyone to go halvsies, either.) But simply knowing that okras had a fan base for dishes beyond gumbo and deep-fried hush puppies (deep-fried anything has a fan base, so the that can't count for much) helped make the case to try some okra for myself.
But what to do about the slime factor?
There were several schools of thought: Don't cut the stem. No, don't cut the okra anywhere. An intact okra is a slime-free okra.
No, the enemy is water. Never add water to okra. Dry the okra diligently - and dry it again when you think you're done - after washing it.
High heat! High heat will keep your okra nice and slimeless. High heat and quick cooking.
No, choose youth! Small, tender okra would naturally have fewer seeds and less developed mucilage - i.e., less slime.
I decided to cherry-pick some ideas from the varying philosophies. After perusing some recipes, I decided to cook okra with some onion and Indian spices.
Most bhindi masala recipes call for the okra to be split lengthwise. That seemed to be an invitation to slimeville. I liked the idea of quick cooking at a high heat. I also liked the idea of small, tender okra, ideally warmed by the August sun in my own ripening garden, but as a young friend likes to say, you get what you get and you don't get upset.
My stance on slicing was part devil-may-care (I'd slice most of them), part scientific researcher (I'd keep a few okra whole and see if this control group was substantively different than the cut sample).
Finally, I would wash those babies and pat them Sahara Desert dry.What else are paper towels for?
Indian Spiced Okra
1 lb. okra
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (what can I say? I love cumin!)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon asafetida, optional
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or less, to taste) or other hot pepper
Wash and dry the okra. Slice in half or keep whole as you wish. Or do both, for comparison.
Spray a large saute pan or cast iron skillet with oil spray or a thin film of olive oil. Saute the onion over a medium flame, adding the garlic after a few minutes, until golden (about 5 minutes).
Add the ginger-garlic paste and then the spices, stirring vigorously to coat the onion mixture, and saute for a minute.
Add the okra, continuing to stir. Add another bit of oil or oil spray to prevent scorching. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook for an additional 3 - 4 minutes.
This time the okra did come out a bit slimy. Was it the tomatoes? Did I simply overcook the dish? My mode of scientific inquiry has its limits: I plan to return to the tomato-free version rather than test all the permutations of the dish. Besides, I'll need those okras for my pickling experiments.
Good thing the produce carts seem so well stocked.