“I remember rediscovering okra as a young chef. One of the farmers who delivered our summer produce invited us to his farm for a visit. I had never seen okra growing in the field before, and was mesmerized by the sight: verdant rows of lanky stalks with broad leaves and gorgeous, hibiscus-like flowers blooming alongside ridged, finger-like pods pointing toward the sun. He clipped off a young tender pod and bit right into it, next offering me one. It was sweet and crunchy, and warm from the afternoon heat. I had only ever tried okra cooked and was stunned at how good it was raw, straight from the plant.
Until then, I had never thought much about okra beyond the traditional fried and stewed versions, which can both be either amazing or horrible depending on how they are prepared. Now it’s one of my favorite summer vegetables to work with. It is incredibly versatile: crisp and sweet when raw, sumptuous and meaty when roasted or sautéed, addictive when dipped in cornmeal and deep-fried. It builds layers of flavor and texture when stewed in soups and gumbos.”
Okra is a flowering plant like its cousins cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus, loves poor soil, unpredictable rains, and heat. It does not like frost, which is why many living above the Mason-Dixon Line are unfamiliar with its goodness or view it with suspicion. So much of the world relishes it. In India it is called “lady fingers.” Africans frequently call it “gumbo,” a term that has taken root in Louisiana and other Cajun areas as well as in the Gullah region of South Carolina and Georgia.
Purchasing: When buying okra, look for the smallest pods. By the time larger pods are cooked, they are much less palatable. If the smaller ones are not available, slice the larger ones on the diagonal before preparing.
Cornmeal Fried Okra
Fried okra is served everywhere in the South, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good. Same goes for stewed Okra and Tomatoes.
2 pounds fresh okra, smallest size preferred, washed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 quarts good frying oil
2 cups extra-fine cornmeal
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
Trim the tops off the okra and slice the okra in half. Place the trimmed okra in a dish and pour 1 cup water over it, then sprinkle with ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Agitate the okra in the water and let it sit 10 to 15 minutes. While the okra is soaking, using a frying thermometer, slowly heat the oil to 350°F.
In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, cornstarch, and sea salt. Pull a handful of okra from the dish and allow it to drain in your fingers a few seconds, then drop the okra slices into the cornmeal mixture. A metal skimmer works well. Toss to coat well, remove the okra from the dredge and sift the excess dredge away, being careful not to knock off too much coating. Repeat the dredging process until all the okra is coated and ready to fry. Working in batches, drop the coated okra into the hot oil and fry until crisp and golden, around 5 minutes. Do not overcrowd the pot. Transfer the hot okra to paper towels to drain, and sprinkle with more fine sea salt.