Early Foodie Tuesday: Okra, I fear you no longer.

I feel that most people have some story about a traumatic encounter with okra.  Most notably about the slime that leeches out into soups and stews anytime okra is involved (scientific name: mucilage).  And about the rather unpleasantly large and alien seeds, the strange pod-like shape, the inexplicable fur that sometimes covers them.  It's like a product of another world.

I remember having to help my mom pick out okra as a kid in the grocery store, and she showed me how to look for unblemished pods with tips that bent easily without breaking.  I remember the sticky way it clung to my knife when I sliced it.  So I'd sworn off okra early on, deciding it was the most disgusting of strange vegetables, and could only be consumed one way: breaded and deep fried.  I never thought I'd come face to face with it again, least of all in my very own adult kitchen.

In general I try to give things a second chance (as with eggplant... or in the case of "juicy pear" Jelly Bellies, about twenty chances.  And I still hate them!).  It was Milk Pail Market that convinced me to try again with okra.  They had this small crate of the vegetables in an obscure corner of their produce section, but I saw immediately that the okra was uncommonly fresh, pretty even, with smooth and elegant ridges, very little fur, and a slight purple sheen.  They were quite sexy.  Despite myself, I quickly filled a bag with them and bought them.

Then came the challenge of how to actually cook them.  But to my Brazilian friend and coworker Thais, the answer was obvious: Frango com Quiabo, or chicken with okra, that quintessentially Brazilian dish traditionally served with polenta.  There was very little that was traditional about my version of chicken and okra.  What I ended up making was more like a cross between frango com quaibo and chicken gumbo. but it was still tasty and not slimy.

Southern cooks swear that adding a spoonful of vinegar to a gumbo gets rid of the offending sliminess of okra.  Indian cooks swear by pre-frying the okra, which sort of "cauterizes" it and eliminates any slime.  For good measure, I did both-- I readied some hot oil in a pan, dropped in my okra, and added two spoonfuls of white wine vinegar on top.  Before long it became obvious that the most important thing was to make sure the okra was frying cut-side down, and to fry it on both sides.  Given the size of these okra slices, it was kind of labor-intensive and involved standing watchfully over the pan with a pair of chopsticks, ready to turn the slices over before they burned too much.  When you first place a slice of okra over a hot pan, it will dance.  That is the slime burning away.  You'll know the slime is gone when the okra stops dancing and starts browning.  It's kind of up to you how browned you want it.  As it was my first time doing this, I accidentally let the okra sit too long in the pan and some of the slices got almost black.  I took them out of the pan and set them aside.

In a separate pan, I sweated a small chopped onion in oil with chopped garlic.  I added small pieces of boneless/skinless chicken thighs (if this were a traditional dish, I would fry whole bone-in pieces of chicken until they were golden brown) and gave them a few healthy shakes of cumin and adobo seasoning.  Don't ask me why the adobo; it probably had no place in this dish but it felt right.  And, because I didn't quite have enough of the chicken, I added a sliced sundried tomato chicken sausage.  I'm sure Brazilian cooks would object.  When the meats were cooked through, I added some homemade chicken broth to make a saucy-sauce, and dusted some flour in to thicken it.

When it was all done, I added the okra back in and gave it a good stir.  Perfect.  Served over some brown rice, it was a nice comforting thing to have on a Sunday evening.

Note: I got some tips on technique from this YouTube video that is a bit hard to follow (not just because it's in Portuguese), but gives a basic idea:

8 responses
WOW, your cooking skills amazes me! Have you done anything with brocolli and/or cauliflower...as much as I love vegetables, I never know how to go about these two:-) Okra is now in my list of to do, thanks to you.
Wow, this is totally the best okra write-up I've ever read! Now you're making me want to cook it again...
I'd heard that the key to selecting good okra was to find ones that were no longer than 4 inches because once they grow beyond that, they're too hard to eat.
Hey Tony, glad you liked it - and I hadn't heard that tip but it makes sense.  You want the okra to be young and tender.
I think this dish looks fantastic, absolutely delicious... Unfortunately I can taste it yet, due to the fact I have a surgery tomorrow morining and I can't anything with grease.
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Delicious thanks for share, i love cooking, my mom always was surprised with me because since I'm a child i like vegetables a lot and even now mi diet is based on rice and vegetables, once i made a review in pharmacy reviews about eating habits and i won really good comments for it.
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