Okra is one of those vegetables with a reputation that makes a lot of people avoid it. Mention its name, and you're likely to inspire a look of revulsion and a disgusted, "But it's so ... so ... SLIMY!"
This reality of nature can't be denied. Cut into an okra pod, and you instantly release a clear, viscous fluid that sticks to the knife and stretches out into long, slippery strands that ... well, let's not go there.
But here's the good news: Properly cooked okra isn't slimy at all. It's tender and delicious, with a natural affinity for onions and tomatoes, and boasts the kind of "meaty" flavor that can round out a vegetarian stew with a hearty richness that fulfills any craving for meat; while for carnivores it makes a great addition to dishes involving chicken or pork.
A native of Africa, okra is a hot-climate veggie that requires a long growing season, so it's most typical in tropical cuisines or places like the American South, where long, hot summers and an African heritage coincide. It's a pretty vegetable, best chosen when its pale-green, finger-like pods are bright and dry. (Much of the rest of the English-speaking world calls okra pods "ladyfingers," by the way, a name that can be quite misleading if you're looking at a recipe for tiramisu or charlotte Russe.)
I thought of okra this week because it's Kentucky Derby time in Louisville, my home town, a time when the traditional stew called burgoo turns up on every menu. Burgoo, a mix of long-simmered meats and a produce-stand full of veggies including okra, takes all day to prepare, so rather than feature it in today's FoodLetter, I'll simply refer those who might be interested to one of my archived recipes online:
For today, let's try a simpler, quicker but still delicious dish that I came up with the other day. It merges a taste of Louisiana Cajun and a hint of Italy in a simplified version of a traditional gumbo:Okra and sausage gumbo
This dish takes under an hour to prepare, and much of that time involves virtually unattended simmering.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1/2 pound of fresh okra (the amount isn't critical, use more if you like it)
2 links of mild Italian sausage
1 medium white onion
2 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon olive oil
Dried red-pepper flakes
14.5-ounce (411 gram) can whole peeled tomatoes
Dried or chopped fresh basil
Juice of 1/2 lime
1. Wash the okra well and cut off the heads and pointed ends. Cut the rest into 1/4-inch slices. Try to ignore the slime.
2. Chop the onion and shallot. (If you don't have or don't want to pay for shallots, use a little more onion instead.) Mince the garlic.
3. Remove the skin from the Italian sausage and crumble it into bits.
4. Heat the olive oil and sausage in a black-iron or nonstick skillet until the sausage starts to brown. Then add the onions and garlic until they're soft and starting to brown. Add the okra - and here's the secret - stir and cook it for 10 minutes or more until it softens and starts to turn brown. The slime will disappear! Add a little water if necessary from time to time if things start sticking.
5. Add dried red-pepper flakes to taste. (Cajun-style food can be mighty spicy, but if you're planning to serve wine, I suggest holding back on the heat, passing hot sauce at the table instead.) Chop the tomatoes coarsely and put them into the pan with their juices. Add salt and black pepper to taste, cover, and reduce the heat to very low.
6. Simmer covered for about 15 to 20 minutes more, stirring occasionally and tasting a bit of okra to see if it's done. I like to get it completely past all crunch but stop before it falls apart, while each piece still has its integrity. Remove the lid and raise heat if necessary to reduce the liquid a bit, while checking to see if it needs more salt and pepper - I like plenty of black pepper in this dish. Finally, stir in the lime juice and serve in bowls over mounds of steaming white rice. Bread and salad, if you wish, are all the extras you'll need to make this a meal.
MATCHING WINE: Iced tea would be an excellent quaff with this meal, but I very much enjoyed it with the affordable and abundantly fruity Spanish red wine featured in today's 30 Second Wine Advisor, Tresantos 2000 Tierra del Vino de Zamora. Okra gumbo would really make a decent cross-cultural match with just about any fruity but acidic red from the Mediterranean, from Spain to Rhone or Languedoc reds from France or the bright, snappy reds of Italy from Chianti to Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.Let us hear from you!
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Thursday, May 2, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
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