Getting Fresh: An Okra Valentine
Bamia, bhindi, gombo, lady's fingers, quingombo -- these are just a few of the world's many pet names for my beloved okra. Unless you live on the North Pole, chances are you're able to get your hands on some okra. Because it thrives under hot and humid conditions, it has made its way into kitchens around the globe, from Angola to Texas, Barbados to Turkey.
Word has it that the taut green (and sometimes red) seed pods are quite ancient, originating in Ethiopia and making their way along the Nile River to Egypt. But okra didn't stop there; she embarked on a world tour and went west, boarding slave ships in places like Ghana and Senegal, later getting dropped off in Brazil, the Caribbean and eventually, slave trade hot spots such as Charleston and New Orleans.
She's a tough lady finger, I'll tell ya. And yet people still give her the short shrift, complaining about her slimy nature and other such nonsense. I've never been bothered by the slime, as I know she's a hard worker, playing an important function as a thickener in stews, soups and gumbo (as in a pot of Louisiana-style gumbo, darlin').
But last year, I discovered something very interesting about the slime that everyone loves to hate. Also known as mucilage, the slime is a form of soluble fiber, the stuff that doctors want us to eat more of to help lower our blood cholesterol levels. hat slime is Mother Nature's way of helping your heart, just like a bowl of oatmeal. In fact, one cup of cooked okra contains 4 grams of fiber, similar to a 1 1/2-cup serving of cooked oatmeal, which contains about 3 grams of fiber.
That soluble fiber (other examples are pectin found in apples and citrus fruits) attaches itself to cholesterol and shoos it out of the digestive tract, which helps lower blood cholesterol levels.
Isn't that cool?
Even better, there's an okra recipe for every day of the week -- and then some. Sure, you can fry her, but she's also wonderful roasted, grilled, stuffed, steamed, pickled and sauteed with other summer veg.
With a bag of okra purchased at the Columbia Pike farmers' market this Sunday, I was ready to cook, but undecided about style and technique. The first thing to came to mind was a paper cone of fried cornmeal-coated okra slices, for sale at a gas station right outside Pass Christian, Miss. The last time I had seen local foods sold at the petrol station was when I was in Grenada, where you could buy a roti while you pumped.
I was jumping all over the map too -- contemplating recipes from the American south to East Africa and back again -- and then I saw the words "okra pancakes."
Even though I knew that frying would be involved, I wanted to try out these fritter-y sounding morsels, which are the genius of the late Edna Lewis and her cooking partner Scott Peacock.
Fluffy and airy, the cornmeal-flour batter contains an egg and baking powder for a good rise, which allows the sliced okra and onion to almost suspend inside the fritter, allowing it to be its own entity yet part of a whole.
Yeah, I fried me up some okra pancakes, and baby, were they lip-smacking wonderful. Because they spend little time in the hot oil (about 3 minutes), the okra stays green and vibrant and it crunches in your mouth, feeling fresh rather than oily and saturated.
I know, I know, all this talk about okra's naturally occurring cholesterol busters, and now I'm offering up fried okra. But that's where you come in. Share your favorite way of eating Miz Lady Finger in the comments area below, and we'll have okra every night til the first frost.
P.S. Today's What's Cooking starts earlier than usual, at 11 a.m.
Recipe below the jump.
From "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 cups thinly sliced okra (about 1/4-inch)
oil for frying
In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt and baking powder and stir well to blend.
In a separate bowl, whisk together egg and water, then stir into the dry ingredients, mixing only until moistened (lumps okay). Sprinkle remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt black pepper over onion and sliced okra, and toss lightly. Fold seasoned vegetables into the batter.
Pour 1 inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat to 340 degrees. Spoon okra batter by heaping tablespoons into hot oil; do not overcrowd pan (KOD note: In a nine-inch cast-iron skillet, I was able to fit four at a time.) Fry until golden brown on one side, and with a slotted spoon or tongs, carefully turn and continue frying until second side is browned, about 3 minutes. Remove from oil and drain well on paper towels.
Keep in a warm oven until ready to serve. Makes approximately 16 2-inch pancakes
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