An okra stew is the only dish I’ve ever made in 25 plus years of cooking that went straight from the stove to the dustbin. It wasn’t the okra’s fault. Clearly. I just didn’t know what I was doing, and the poor, cute little okra I purchased so many years ago up North paid the price.
Caught up in the excitement of finding an exotic and unfamiliar vegetable at a neighborhood farmer’s market, I bought a couple of pounds’ worth. I almost regretted doing so because for a minute I thought the farmstand guy who sold them to me was going to hug me. He seemed so grateful to have somebody – anybody – buy his okra. Catching himself, he ended up just throwing a bunch more in my bag for free to show his appreciation. Thank goodness, too, because that would have just been awkward.
Still…I walked away from the market perplexed, wondering if I had just done something incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid.
We know where this is going, right? I mean, the dish did end up in the trash.
Once home I found myself at a loss. This was the early 90s, mind you, and I didn’t have access to 20,457 pieces of information on any given topic thanks to my smart phone and computer. Then, I only had a phone, which was useless since I knew no one that could offer okra insight, and my largely Italian and Mediterranean assortment of cookbooks, which didn’t offer one single okra recipe.
Even restauranteur and cookbook author Alice Water left me out to dry. While she covered other rather obscure vegetables, like amaranth greens and pea vine shoots in her Chez Panisse Vegetables collection, not a peep out of her about okra.
I don’t remember how I muddled my way through that fateful afternoon. I do suspect I did just about everything one could possibly do to encourage the slime factor for which okra is all too well known. The stew came out basically gelatinous and I watched it slowly goo its way into the trash can, much the same way molten lava might ooze out of Mount Vesuvius.
So for three years now, since moving down South really, I have walked past the okra section of every farmers market and supermarket. And quickly, I might add!
Well, no more. Last week I decided to have another go, my desire to tame this iconic Southern staple being rather strong. This time, though, I approached the process as a science project. I armed myself with some solid research and spent a bit of time learning how to avoid okra’s slime factor.
As it turns out, there are four simple techniques that easily de-‘slime-ify’ this cousin to the cotton family. See? I learned that too.
First and foremost, cook the okra immediately after cutting off the stems and chopping them up. The longer they sit once cut, the more their gelatinous fiber seeps out and becomes unmanageable.
Second, sauté the okra in oil over high heat until it becomes bright green before adding it to stews, soups and casseroles. While it is an additional step, it will take any sliminess right out of the okra and make it a welcomed addition to any dish.
Third, add acid in the form of lemon juice, vinegar or tomatoes. I consider this technique a sort of slime-free insurance policy. By first sautéing the okra and then adding an ingredient like tomatoes, you obliterate the remotest chance of finding even a hint of sliminess in your dish. This also helps explain why pickled okra, in all of its crisp deliciousness, is never slimy and why ‘Okra & Tomato Stew’ is such a popular Southern offering.
Finally, you can oven roast okra, as you’ll see from the recipe below. If you desire, you can omit the pasta and ‘Asian-inspired Red Pepper Sauce’ and just serve the roasted okra and onions as a delicious and savory side dish.
One thing is for sure. While I may still have tons to learn on the subject, my dustbin will never see the likes of cooked okra again.
Honestly, I wasn’t even trying to create what is essentially a food mash-up, or a dish that combines different ethnic cuisines. I was experimenting with an okra pasta dish on the same day I made one of my favorite Asian-inspired marinades for baby back ribs and decided to add a little of my sauce to the pasta and…eureka!
Give it a try and see for yourself. 🙂
making mash-up pasta with okra, goat cheese & red pepper sauce
Overnight or several hours ahead, trim 1 10-oz. (280 gr.) package of center cut country ham of its bone and excess fatty bits. Trim following the fatty membranes, discarding them, to create completely lean pieces. I find using kitchen scissors to be the easiest way to do the job.
Place them in a bowl and pour just enough milk on top to cover them.
This is an incredibly important step because it helps to remove the excessive saltiness from the ham.
Wash 1 lb. (450 gr.) of fresh okra under cold water.
Drain well and place on a kitchen towel to air-dry for at least an hour.
Make sure the okra is nice and firm and bright green when you purchase it, with no dark spots on them. That’s how you’ll know they are fresh.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut the stems off the now dried okra
and then slice each okra in half.
Slice up 1 small sliced Spanish or yellow onion.
Place the okra, onions, 3 generous tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and sea or Kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper in a shallow rimmed baking sheet.
Mix well using your hands, making sure every piece of okra and onion is coated with oil.
Place the sheet in the oven and lower the temperature to 400°F. Roast for 40 minutes, turning the pieces over about halfway through the roasting time.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
As the okra is roasting, prepare the country ham by taking it out of the fridge. Drain the milk and absorb any residue moistness using paper towels. Slice them in matchstick-style pieces. Paper-towel them one more time. If they are moist, they won’t caramelize in the pan.
Cook the ham in two batches. Start by heating a 10-inch nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add half the ham and cook, stirring frequently. Soon it will begin browning on the edges.
You’ll see from the shot below that some of the milk that had been absorbed by the ham is going to be released as it cooks in the skillet.
Just allow it to evaporate and continue cooking. Once the moisture completely evaporates, the ham will continue to cook and will then start to acquire its desired color through browning.
Repeat, adding 1 additional tablespoon of oil to the skillet, to cook the second half of the ham. Once both okra and ham are cooked, add the ham to the okra and cover the sheet with aluminum foil. Place in oven at 250°F to keep warm.
Cook ¾ lb. (340 gr. or 3/4 of a box) of the pasta of your choice according to package directions, making sure to generously salt the water and to remove the pasta when it is still al dente, or nice and firm.
Drain well and add to the baking sheet containing the okra and ham. Add an additional 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and mix well. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Spoon into warmed bowls and top with a generous dollop of Asian-inspired Red Pepper Sauce and a handful of crumbled goat cheese. Makes 4-6 servings, depending on appetite.