I have a confession to make. I don’t like gumbo. There are several reasons behind my aversion, but one is that I don’t like the okra in it. That’s not because I don’t like okra. I just don’t like it boiled. Cooking it this way amplifies the signature Southern veggie’s most unflattering characteristic, its texture. Basically, it ends up slimy.
I do like okra though. A lot. I like the short, fat ones; the odd ones curved into a lazy “C”; the long ones, straight as an arrow; the smooth ones; the beveled ones; the green ones; and the ones lined with purplish stripes. I just like them prepared other ways.
Growing up, one of my favorites was fried okra. I still relish the gritty, salty crunch that comes from a thin round of okra being dusted in cornmeal, fried till crisp and salted liberally while warm. But I find myself making this dish less and less because farm-fresh okra (always the best) is only available in the worst heat of summer. And I may dislike boiled okra, but I HATE being hot.
Living in the Deep South all my life, it’s a state of being I should be used to by now, but I’m not. I half-joke that I “run hot” to begin with and blame my slightly volatile temper on this condition. Add my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama’s April to October thermometer-busting temps, and I stay feverish and sticky (not unlink okra) for about six months a year.
My grandmother (my mama’s mama) was hot natured too; her cheeks were perpetually flushed pink by the south-Mississippi heat. Yet she would slave in her kitchen for hours every day, and especially when my family and I visited. She’d have all her burners and her oven going at once: cooking lady peas and squash, baking tea cakes or corn bread and frying up okra in batches (it took several to satisfy us all). I can remember noting her thin billowy dresses (the least amount of clothing her modest nature would allow) getting sweat-stuck to her upper back and beads of moisture wetting the loose curls at the base of her short cropped hair. She never complained, and she’d dutifully stay near the sweltering stove watching that last batch of okra longer than most since granddaddy liked his three or four shades darker than the standard golden; it was really only about thirty seconds away from being burnt black.
Today, the thought of standing in my own kitchen, staring at a large skillet, tending to okra floating in blistering oil while my AC battles the ninety-degree-plus outside air is so unappealing, it has pushed me to explore other ways to eat okra.
And I’ve found several. Roasted okra is the easiest and has the same neutralizing effect on okra’s inherent sticky iciness as frying. Plus, while there’s no additional flavor from a coating, there’s also no distraction from the okra’s distinct but subtle “green” taste. You don’t even have to chop it up. Here’s how I do it:
Coat whole okras in olive oil. Lay them in single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and salt generously. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven and cook for 20-25 minutes. About half way through the cooking time, use tongs to turn each okra over for even roasting. They’re delicious just like this but get even better when served with tangy “comeback sauce” for dipping. (Southern Living‘s recipe for this Mississippi-born condiment is fabulous.)
Pickled okra is a new love of mine. A simple solution of vinegar, salt, sugar and spices elevates and preserves okra’s just-picked flavor. Alabama-based Wickles Pickles makes a wickedly spicy version, but you can make your own with minimal effort and just a bit of time. While pickling will heat up your kitchen like frying, you can do it just once, and then enjoy the rewards of your labor for months to come.
Step 1: Boil your canning jars with their lids and seals in a large pot of water. Carefully remove them and set aside on a dishtowel.
Step 2: Fill another large pot 2/3 of the way full with water and bring it to a simmer.
Step 3: Bring 4 cups of white vinegar, 4 cups of water, 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup sugar to a boil and let cook for a few minutes.
Step 4: Jam as many fresh okra as you can into each sterilized jar along with one clove of garlic, some hot pepper slices and a few onion slices (optional). You can really add any spices you like.
Step 5: Pour the hot pickling liquid into the jars, stopping about a 1/2 inch from the top of the jar.
Step 6: Wipe the jar tops clean if you spilled any liquid, then place the lids on your jars and turn until just tight. If you’ve got a canning rack, place the jars in the rack and set them into the second pot of hot water. If you don’t have a rack, use tongs to set them down very carefully into the water. Add more water if needed to cover the tops of the jars by about an inch.
Step 7: Bring the water with the jars in it to a boil, and let it heat the jars for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the jars sit in the water for another 10 minutes to cool down some. Carefully remove the jars and let them sit, undisturbed for at least 12 hours.
Step 8: Test the seals on your finished pickled okra by pressing down on the center of each jar top. If there is any give (if it moves up and down), you’ll need to re-process the jars. First take off the lids and look for any nicks in the rubber seal. If needed, use a new jar. Then put the unsealed jars back into boiling water for 10-15 minutes and let them rest again before a re-test. If there’s no give in the lid on the first test, you’re done!
There’s no need to refrigerate (until you open them), and they’ll keep for about a year in your pantry until then.
But it’s doubtful they’ll last that long. Employ their vinegary punch to jazz up a cheese plate. Or make some “Southern Sushi,” a perfect no-cook snack for fall’s football parties and tailgates. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese on top of deli ham slices and place a piece of pickled okra on one edge of each slice. Roll them up and slice crosswise. Skewer with a toothpick and you’ve got an easy appetizer that looks almost as good as it tastes.