Saturday, August 27, 2011

All That Okra

I'm not an okra eater.  At least, prior to this summer I wasn't an okra eater.  I would buy it occasionally in the summer when it was available, but then I would struggle to eat it before it went soft, after which I would decide not to buy any more for the season.  So I was going against the conventional garden wisdom of grow what you will eat when I planted a row of okra in the front-yard garden this spring, taking a risk that the plants would be beautiful but that their fruits would go to waste.  Because a corollary to the grow-what-you-will-eat rule is that the plants that you don't want to eat – the mustards that flower too early and the kales that never make it to tonight's menu – are always the biggest, healthiest, most prolific plants in the garden.

I started down the path of okra growing because the seed packet was appealing.  I'm a fairly controlled spender in most areas of life, but, when it comes to seed packets and the promise of a new season, I tend to get carried away.  So I was quickly won over by the promise of high yields of tender Cajun Delight okra pods to use in "salad, stir-fries, gumbo, or pickled."  The idea of growing okra was also appealing given that I garden in central Texas, where the summer temperatures exceed 100˚ F for weeks at a time (or this year, for months at a time), which severely limits the variety of vegetables in my summer garden.  Okra, originally from west Africa, is adapted to growing in hot, humid conditions, and is grown as a hot-season staple throughout tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.  So it makes more sense to grow okra in the summer here than to struggle to keep, say, tomatoes, with all their water and nutrient needs and wimpy inability to set fruit on hot nights, alive and producing through a summer like this one.

Okra plants in the garden

The thing is, I knew what to do with all those tomatoes, but I had no idea what to do with all that okra.  But I wanted to figure it out.  I wanted to become an okra eater.  And what better way to learn how to cook with okra than to have a continuous supply of it flowing into my kitchen for several weeks?

My okra plants were beautiful, with huge, deeply-lobed leaves and hibiscus-like flowers.  Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is in the Malvaceae, or Mallow Family, also known as the Hibiscus Family, which, back before it got expanded and complicated by the molecular biologists, was characterized by showy, radially-symmetric flowers with long, attractive pistils (below, the stalk in the middle of the flower with the sticky, burgundy tip, which is the female part) decorated with many stamens (the many small, yellow parts along the stalk of the pistil, which are the male parts).  The bottom line of all this flower talk is that, if not for the fact that okra plants modestly hide their flowers beneath their huge leaves, I would expect to see trays of okra seedlings on sale in the ornamental flower section of nurseries in late spring.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) flowers

Okra plants also turned out to be easy to easy to grow, even in the heat of the summer.  They grew, continually producing new leaves and new flowers and new okra pods, week after week, on only two waterings a week, seemingly unfazed by the over-100-degree temperatures and oven-like high-pressure winds that sucked the life out of everything else this summer.  The plants grew so tall that I joked that I was going to need a step ladder to harvest by the end of the summer.  And they continued to make okra pods, day after day after day.

That was the high-maintenance part of growing okra, that the pods needed to be harvested every day, starting in mid May and continuing until I decided to pull the plants due to my own heat exhaustion in mid August.  Picking okra pods was a quick daily chore but not a fun one.  The plants were itchy and sticky, attracting ants and aphids and fluffy, white scale insects.  The okra plants also had spines, tiny, almost-not-visible prickers just like the small spines on prickly pear cactus, that stung my skin and were nearly impossible to locate.  And the consequences for skipping a day of harvesting were immediate – longer, tougher, less-edible okra pods, many of which went straight to the compost pile.  I skipped two days of harvesting only a couple of times and, in just 72 hours, the pods grew to nearly foot long and terrifying in their woodiness.

Totally thrilled to be harvesting okra

Each day's harvest was not very big, just a handful or two of okra pods, which didn't seem like much until the daily handfuls began to accumulate into bagfuls in the refrigerator.  Then came the challenge that I had anticipated, figuring out what to do with all that okra.

First, I made okra pickles, which proved to be the best way to use up a bunch of okra pods at once.  I pickled the okra in an apple cider vinegar brine (2 cups vinegar, 1-1/2 cups water, 3 tablespoons pickling salt, 2 bay leaves).  I added a clove of garlic, halved, a hot pepper, and a teaspoon each of black peppercorns, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds to each pint jar before packing it with whole okra pods.  Over the course of the summer I made three batched of okra pickles, about 20 pints in total.  At first I wasn't sure how often I would want to eat okra pickles, but they are growing on me and seem to be getting better with age.  My new favorite after-work snack is okra pickles with sharp cheddar and a strong IPA.

The only downside to pickling was that it was A Production, and a hot production at that.  It takes my water-bath canning pot nearly an hour to reach a boil, plus the brine has to boil, plus the jars have to be prepped, then more jars have to be prepped when I realize I don't have enough jars for all that okra, plus the okra has to be washed and stemmed, so the whole process takes a couple of hours and turns the kitchen into a steamy, hot pickle factory for the rest of the afternoon, as the thick-bottomed boiling pot slowly releases all that stored heat into the already-hot house.  Perhaps someday I will have this house properly weatherized but, until then, baking, brewing, canning, pickling, and other steam-producing projects are really best saved for the cooler months.  I needed to find some quicker, fresh-eating options for the okra.

Lee carried out the second solution, the tried-and-true southern way of eating okra: breaded and fried.  I washed and trimmed both ends off the okra pods, then chopped them into two or three pieces per pod.  Lee dunked the chopped okra into an egg-milk mixture then breaded it in a seasoned cornmeal and flour mixture then fried it in safflower oil in a hot skillet.  The fried okra was so delicious that we ate a double batch in one sitting.

Finally, I turned to Indian cuisine, which has many uses for the humblest of vegetables, for an okra, or bhindi, recipe.  I found a recipe for Bhindi Masala that looked promising and basically followed that, increasing the amount of okra (I had a lot on hand) and using jalapeño peppers from the garden and the last of the season's tomatoes.  The resulting dish was very tasty, as promised, and, eaten with rice, was dinner for two plus satisfying leftovers for two for the next night.  At the end of the okra season, after I had cut down the plants, I made this dish one more time.  It wasn't quite as amazing with store-bought tomatoes but it was still delicious, providing a reason to look forward to next summer's okra harvest.

In the end, we didn't eat all of that okra.  Some pods grew too long to eat and one batch of pods went soft in a bag in the refrigerator and had to be composted.  But, overall, I made use of most of the okra that I grew this summer.  Plus we have a store of okra pickles for the fall – I hope they last until the porter and stout season – and fond memories of that Okra Masala dish.  Now we are okra eaters.

Bhindi (Okra) Masala
adapted from Charishma's Very Tasty Bhindi Masala

I harvest okra daily, or at least every other day, and place pods in a bag in the refrigerator, accumulating pods until I have enough to cook or pickle.  I compost overly large pods (over four inches) and any pods that begin to soften or develop black spots, which happens after about a week and a half in the refrigerator.  This means that, during okra season, I expect to cook or pickle okra pods about once a week to keep up with the daily harvest.

I use safflower oil as the neutral-flavored, high-heat vegetable oil for this recipe, but canola, grape seed, or vegetable (usually soy) oil will work just as well.  What's important is that the oil is fresh, because stale oil will ruin any dish, regardless of how much spice is used.

1 pound young (2-4 inches) okra pods

2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2-4 jalapeño peppers, minced
1 large onion, chopped

1/4 cup safflower oil
1-1/4 tablespoons coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Wash and rinse the okra pods.  Remove the stem and bottom end from each pod then chop the remaining okra into two or three pieces.  Set aside.

Heat two tablespoons safflower oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Toss in the cumin and mustard seeds and stir.  Once the cumin seeds have become aromatic and the mustard seeds have begun to pop!, add the jalapeño peppers and onion.  Fry slowly, stirring periodically, on medium heat until the onions are browned, about ten minutes.  Set aside.

Heat 1/4 cup safflower oil in a wok over high heat.  Add the chopped okra and stir fry until the okra is bright green and aromatic, about five minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion mixture to the okra, and stir to combine.  Add the coriander, red chili, and turmeric powders, stirring well.  Allow the mixture to cook for about five minutes.  Add the tomatoes, stir to combine, and cover the wok.  Allow the mixture to cook, now covered, for another several minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the tomato juices as they are released.  Uncover the wok, add salt to taste, and mix well.  Cook for a minute or two longer.

Serve hot over basmati rice or with Indian breads.

No comments:

Post a Comment