Pod pride


If you know me, you know I love okra. And I live to introduce the squeamish to the pleasures of the pod, the humble green vegetable famously reviled for its mucilaginous nature and brought to America by slaves from Africa.

I am not alone, either.

In recent times, Southern food lovers, writers and cooks have spoken up for okra, which like grits and collards, is maligned by some and beloved by others. Though it may not be a superstar, it’s definitely on the ascent.

“I like to think of it as the next asparagus,” Atlanta chef and cookbook writer Virginia Willis enthuses in her new book, “Okra” (UNC Press, $18). “It’s only a matter of time before the love of okra spreads. I’m convinced.”

Woman after my own heart.

Personally, I inhale crispy little wheels of fried okra like popcorn. I find the acidic crunch of pickled okra unlike anything else in the canning repertoire. I use it as a natural thickener in soups, stews and gumbos that, paired with rice, are perfect one-dish meals. And when I have small tender pods straight from the garden, I love to blanch them in a little water, toss with olive oil or butter (or both), and eat them with my fingers. (Slurp.)

Oh, yeah. My go-to okra dish is hardly a recipe at all: Slice the pods lengthwise. Saute on medium-high heat with olive oil and garlic until the edges begin to char. And, if you feel like it, add chili peppers and a little cilantro garnish. The best!

Willis, as it turns out, is likewise pod-struck. After essaying on the history, lore, culinary uses and agriculture of the vegetable, she proffers a chapter stuffed with Southern recipes: Fresh Black-Eyed Peas and Okra, Okra Cornbread, Carolina Crab and Shrimp Pilau. Being the French-trained author of “Bon, Appétit, Y’all” (Ten Speed Press), she even bakes up Okra Gougeres.

As much as we love okra in the South, it’s also a staple in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’ve eaten it in Malaysia, Japan and Brazil. Willis devotes half of her book to okra recipes from around the world, offering West African Chicken Stew with Okra and Peanuts; Turkish Okra and Ground Beef; and Indian Chicken and Okra Curry. She also makes the point that fried and tomato-based versions show up in virtually every okra-loving culture.

I’m down with both.

While I love small tender pods battered and fried whole, I’ve noticed a trend of slicing the elegant pod into “fries” — at places as diverse as Chai Pani in Decatur; Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q near Little Five Points; and Home Grown, the Southern cafe on Memorial Drive.

Willis covers the fried spectrum with, among other recipes, Indian Fried Okra With Spiced Yogurt, Crisp Greek Fried Okra and Shoestring Fried Okra, which is a wonderful cocktail snack.

Okra is even good raw. Let me re-phrase that: It is especially good raw.

Savannah cookbook author Damon Fowler remembers his mother using uncooked okra in tossed salads when he was a kid. And in the forthcoming second edition of his indispensable “Beans, Greens & Sweet Georgia Peaches: The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables” (Globe Pequot Press, $21.95), he revisits that memory with a lettuce-and-tomato salad that is summer itself.

Just use the tenderest, smallest pods you can find. Now take a bite. See there: You are eating okra naked. One way or another, we will convert you.

Okrafest

9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. July 20 at Grant Park Farmers Market, 600 Cherokee Ave. S.E., Atlanta. grantparkmarket.org.

4 p.m. to 8 p.m. July 24. East Atlanta Village Farmers Market. 561 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E., Atlanta. farmeav.com.

Atlanta chef and author Virginia Willis prepares recipes and signs her book, “Okra” (UNC Press, $18). Also, free okra tastings, games and crafts.

OKRA RECIPES

A green salad, an Indian-style curry, a new-fangled way of frying — here are three delicious recipes using okra.

Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

Serves: 4

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

This recipe, from Savannah cookbook author Damon Fowler, is a glorious showcase for fresh summer okra and tomatoes. It also uses a clever technique for making garlic paste and infusing it into a dressing. Feel free to add cucumbers or other fresh veggies to your liking.

4 extra-thick-cut slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch wide lardons

8 Romaine or Bibb lettuce leaves

4 small ripe heirloom tomatoes or 1 pint ripe cherry or grape tomatoes

16 small pods fresh okra, less than 3 inches long

½ small Vidalia or red onion, thinly sliced

10-12 large basil leaves or 1/3 cup (not packed) mint leaves

1 small clove garlic

Salt

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil

Whole black pepper in a mill

Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat until golden and crisp, about 8-10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Wash the lettuce leaves under cold running water and spin dry. Wash and dry tomatoes; if using heirloom varieties, core and quarter them (they shouldn’t need to be peeled); if using cherry or grape tomatoes, cut them in half. Trim the stem end of the okra, wash it under cold running water, and pat dry.

Tear the leaves in bite-sized pieces into a large salad bowl. Add onion and tomatoes. Cut okra in half lengthwise and add it to the bowl. Tear the large basil leaves into small bits; if using mint, tear only the large leaves, leaving smaller ones whole. Scatter the herbs over the salad. Add the bacon.

Lightly crush the garlic clove with the side of a knife blade, peel, and chop it. Sprinkle a little salt over it and, with the edge of the knife blade, rub it to a puree. Scrape this into a small mixing bowl and add the vinegar and mustard to it. Whisk until smooth, then slowly whisk in the oil a few drops at a time. Taste and adjust the salt and season with a generous grinding of pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss until it is glossy and evenly coated. Serve immediately.

Adapted from the forthcoming second edition of “Beans, Greens & Sweet Georgia Peaches: The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables” by Damon Fowler (Globe Pequot Press, $ 21.95)

Per serving: 171 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 6 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 12 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 219 milligrams sodium.

Indian Chicken and Okra Curry

Serves: 4-6

Hands on: 20 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

As Virginia Willis points out in “Okra” (UNC Press, $18), okra and tomatoes are a natural marriage, and cooks from nearly every okra-loving culture combine the two vegetables. This Indian-style curry is a case in point. Feel free to substitute two fat summer tomatoes for the canned, cooking a few minutes longer to thicken.

1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons curry powder, preferably Madras

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 (13½-ounce) can low-fat coconut milk

1 (14½-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juices

¼ cup golden raisins

1 pound okra, stem ends trimmed

cooked rice, for serving

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, until brown, about 8 minutes total. (Transfer the chicken to a plate.)

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion to the skillet, and cook until soft and translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the curry powder, cayenne pepper, coconut milk, tomatoes with juices and raisins; stir to combine. Return chicken to pan, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender, about 15-20 minutes. Add okra and cook until it is just tender, about 10-12 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon rice into bowls. Ladle over the curry and top with cilantro. Serve immediately.

Adapted from “Okra” by Virginia Willis (UNC Press, $18)

Per serving, without rice, based on 4: 327 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 16 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 17 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 40 milligrams cholesterol, 299 milligrams sodium.

Shoestring Fried Okra

Serves: 4-6

Hands on: 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Fried okra lovers: rejoice. This greasy little snack — from Virginia Willis’ “Okra” (UNC Press, $18) — is yet another way to enjoy the vegetable fried to a crisp. You’ll need patience and a sharp knife to julienne the okra; if you can only muster slicing the pods into quarters, that will do for okra “fries.”

1 pound okra, stem ends trimmed

¼ cup all-purpose flour

coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3½ to 4 cups peanut oil

Line a baking sheet with paper towels, and set it next to the stovetop. Using a very sharp knife, slice each okra pod in half lengthwise. Place the cut side down, and chop each half into 1/8-inch julienne strips. Place a handful of okra slices in a bowl and sprinkle with flour. Season with salt and pepper. Toss until the okra slices are well coated with flour.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it registers 375 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer. When the oil is hot, add the coated okra. Cook, turning as needed, until the okra is golden brown, 3-5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the okra to the prepared baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat with the remaining okra. Serve immediately.

Adapted from “Okra” by Virginia Willis (UNC Press, $18)

Per serving, based on 4: 310 calories (percent of calories from fat, 78), 3 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 27 grams fat (5 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 39 milligrams sodium.


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