Pick of the Month, September ‘08

No, it’s not a joke. It’s also not the first time I’ve written a Pick post with just hours in a month to spare. And like times past, the procrastination has occurred while pondering the vegetable and its wonders for most of the month. Ah, me. In a bright, shining future, I will have things so much more together.

As I write, I’m watching Alton Brown wax on about the wonders of beets. Now that’s a veggie that’s worthy of its own post — I’m especially pleased that Alton just showed the food TV world how to pickle the red jewels. But I digress. The subject of today’s post is another — one that I’ve been seeing at our farmer’s market in abundance for most of the month. For weeks now, all the farmers have been displaying overflowing pint baskets of okra, and as I walked past them, they all seemed to scream, “Fry me!” Which is exactly what I’ve done, and exactly what I’m going to encourage you, reader, to do.

But first, let’s just consider okra. It’s true, in the South, we fry it up, like so many other foods. But my earliest memories of okra are all about gumbo; my father’s side of the family is from south Mississippi, where the heavy influence of New Orleans food reigns in local cuisine. Shrimp gumbo, with sausage, served over rice. It wasn’t until I was trying to develop my own recipe for turkey gumbo (from the carcass and leftovers of Thanksgiving dinner) that I realized the role that okra was playing in that creole stew. It’s all about the slime. The gooey stuff that can so easily offend — it’s a polymer-like product of the seed pods — makes a great thickener for soup.

Additionally, not until I began making babyfood for my firstborn did I learn that okra is also packed with things good for you. High in folate, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium — it qualifies as a super green veggie. But that didn’t help me convince my one-year old to eat it. Mixed with applesauce or not.

And, really — it doesn’t sport the ease and versatility of a winter green, or even green beans for that matter. Yes, you can sautee it, pickle it (delicious — and I looked into doing it, but my first canning adventure is something that will have to wait until sometime after the birth of my third child), boil it, etc. It works well stewed with tomatoes or other acidic counterparts (this reportedly cuts down on the sliminess factor). But outside of using it in my yearly post-Turkey-day pot o’ gumbo, I mostly just fry it. It’s so easy to do, and so comforting, one of the true southern foods that I really enjoy making.

This method is adapted from a recipe by Madame Deer-in-Headlights herself, Paula Deen. I saw Alton fry some okra once, but it didn’t look like what I thought fried okra should look like. So I went with Paula. And I have to admit that she did not lead me astray. I’ve changed a few things — mainly to make things a little easier for smaller batches and to avoid using an entire bottle of oil for a side dish (has anyone else noticed the price of canola oil these days?). But you can find the original recipe if you do a quick search for fried okra on the FoodTV website.

This is for about a pound of okra — plenty to serve as a side-dish or appetizer for four people. You’ll want to have some ketchup on hand, too. If you live in a part of the country where okra is hard to come by, even at this time of year, then try it next time it makes an appearance at your local market.

Fried Okra (adapted from recipe from Paula Deen)

  • about a cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound okra, trimmed on both ends and sliced 1/2-inch thick
  • about 1/3 cup buttermilk

Heal oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet (cast-iron works great). The oil should fully coat the bottom of the pan, and be about 1/4″ deep (so use more if necessary). Heat until oil is about 350º on a candy thermometer.

While the oil heats, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the okra and buttermilk. Stir well to coat each piece. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the buttermilk-coated okra to the bowl of cornmeal mixture (let as much buttermilk drain from the okra as possible). Toss all of the okra in the cornmeal, then transfer to a colander placed over a sink or trash can. Shake the colander well, allowing excess coating to sift out.

When the oil is hot, carefully add the okra to the pan. Allow to sit, untouched, for a minute or two, until the bottoms start to turn golden. Carefully turn the pieces so that all sides cook. Once your okra is a nice golden color all around, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Once cooled slightly, taste for seasoning and salt more if necessary.

Break a leg, Bessie. No, really.

At one point a few months ago I promised a thorough review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and like so many other well-intentioned ideas I had for my summer, that review never came to fruition. It’s not happening today, either; I just don’t have the mental capacity for a good book review these days. But the book has continued to be a source for thought, discussion, and inspiration in both our household and in conversations with friends who’ve read it. (Should I take a sentence or two again, now, to plead with any reader who has not yet enjoyed this read to do so soon? Does it go too far for me to suggest that I think everyone should read it? Have I disclaimed that I don’t agree with everything in the book, but that it’s still an important and responsible book to enjoy?)

The great thing about the way the book is written is that the author really does leave you free to make decisions about how much, if anything, you might want to change about the way you eat. So while we’re not raising our own chickens or buying a backyard goat (ahem… yet), we have decided to try to find a local source for grassfed beef. There is a farm nearby that sells their beef, poultry, and pork at our local farmer’s market, and I recently purchased four broiler hens, apparently a French breed that has a more equal dispersion of light and dark meat. (The hens are all still in my freezer — while the cost wasn’t exorbitant, it was enough that I feel the roasting of these hens is warranted only by a “special occasion.” At this point, though, I’ll be satisfied with the occasion of my long-awaited post-partum revived interest in cooking.) The same farm sells grassfed beef, but oh, my, is it pricey. We don’t eat vast quantities of red meat in our house, but purchasing even our relatively small requirements from this farm would require a significant adjustment to the already-panged grocery budget.

So, we’ve been talking to a guy we know. He mentioned, a few months ago, that his brother-in-law has some grassfed cattle on his farm. And apparently — maybe this is common knowledge among those of a more rurally-influenced background — when a cow, say, has the misfortune of breaking one of its legs, it has to be put down pretty much immediately. And it can’t be sold for slaughter. Which is where, according to our friend, we come in.

Now, my husband is quite the go-getter. He is rarely afraid to try anything — he just thinks that if you don’t know how to do something, you find a book, or a person, to tell you how to do it. And then you just do it. This is simultaneously a beautiful and terrifying part of his personality. One of those things I can both love and hate, all within a small span of time. So our friend tells us that we can just wait around for a phone call from his brother-in-law, telling us that a cow is down. And then we show up, slaughter the cow, get it to the processor, and the rest is done for us. They process the meat, and we end up with a few hundred pounds of grassfed beef, all for the low price of processing (about 80¢/lb, a total steal). This is all said in a similar nonchalant manner as if he were telling us to drop by the local supermarket and pick up some steaks. And my husband is thinking this sounds great — what a deal — let’s do it.

And I’m excited about the deal, too, I admit. But then I actually picture, in my head, the day the call comes. You know, when Tim hangs up the phone, and says, “Honey, I’ll be back in a bit. A cow is down,” and walks out the front door with his keys and wallet, climbing into the Subaru, off to gather our year’s worth of beef. And I start to realize that this requires the slaughter and transport of an 800-pound animal, two things which — to me — sound like things better left to people who know what the hell they are doing. So I start asking casual questions. Things like, “So, how do you think this will go down? Do you shoot it? Strap it to the luggage rack? How long do you have to get it to the processing plant before bad things start to happen to the meat? Where is the processing plant?” etc., until I think I’ve made the point that um, I don’t have a lot of confidence in this idea.

So we had a follow-up discussion with our beef connection. There is another option, one which does not require quite so much involvement from us when it comes to killing the cow. I’m still confused (a bit willingly, I’ll admit) about the details, but for perhaps double the price (closer to $2/lb) we can take our city selves out of the process. Granted, if we were truly following the spirit of Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’d kill the cow ourselves, staring it in the face first. We’d truly know our food, and be better eaters for it.

But I’m not quite there. It was hard enough to realize that, really, what I’m sitting around waiting for is for a cow to fall and break a bone. I’m no Pete Singer follower, and my brief stint with vegetarianism in college had more to do with economics and fad diets than animal rights. But, still. It does make me a little sad to think about the poor cow tripping up one afternoon and then ending up filling our borrowed deep freezer. I think that when this all goes down — if it in fact ever does — we should name the cow, and be thankful for its life (and, er, misfortune) every time we enjoy our tasty, lean beef. It will be one step closer, for us, to understanding and appreciating the source of our food.