Fried Okra

You probably wouldn’t guess it, given my obvious enthusiasm about life in a city about 1,000 miles away from all my family, but I was an incurable homebody when I was younger. The occasional sleepover at a friend’s house was fine.  A week at Grandmother’s?  Ok, but only because that’s basically like being at home, anyway.  But a week long spend-the-night summer camp?  Nooooooo.  Not on your life.  I tried to do the whole camp thing exactly three times.  The first time, I made it about six hours before I got weepy, and about three days before I literally made myself sick so my mom would come get me.  The second time, I made it the whole week– probably because my mom was actually there as a counselor– but not without a big, (un)healthy dose of tears and whining.  The third and final time, I was 13, and a few of my friends went during the same week.  Several years had passed since my camp crying days, and I had a reasonably fun time, but not enough to ever go back.

Although I eventually reached the point where I enjoyed trips away from home, I still didn’t have any particular interest in leaving for good.  While all my classmates in high school were talking about leaving Dothan, never to return, my parents had to kick me out by insisting that I go to college somewhere outside my hometown.  But once I did take the plunge and move to a college *two whole hours* north of home, I was surprised to find that I adapted to independent life right away.  I haven’t really experienced homesickness since then.

At least, not until this week.  Fortunately, it’s not the crying kind of homesickness, but just a tiny little pull, a wee bit of wistfulness.  I can tell you exactly what brought it on, too– Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen.

I am all about perusing the cookbook section of the Boston Public Library, but after a couple years of doing that on a monthly basis, I’ve kind of seen what there is to see.  But, since I’m now a resident of Brookline, and a quick 10-minute walk away from the Brookline Library, I have a wealth of new cookbooks at my disposal.  When I found this one, I knew I had to borrow it.  What I wasn’t expecting was the authentic Southern voice that popped out of each page.

When it comes to Southern cookbooks, I have been a loyal fan of The Lee Brothers for quite a while.  And while I still adore that book (and aspire to have my very own copy someday!), those guys are a little too chic to really remind me of home.  Sara Foster, however, sounds just like the ladies around whom I grew up.  (Or is it “up around whom I grew”???)    She talks about cooking up a “mess of greens,” and the fact that her mother used to wash greens on the rinse cycle of the washing machine.  There’s a chapter on desserts, aptly titled “Stay Awhile Longer.”  The chapter on pork declares that pig is a food group all its own.  Now that’s the home cooking I’m used to.

All this Southern cookbook reading convinced me that the only way to combat my wistfulness was to cook up a batch of fried okra.  It’s the quintessential Southern snack– irresistibly crunchy and addictive, and it totally counts as one of your daily vegetable servings, riiiight?  It’s also dangerously easy to prepare, so if you find yourself gorging on the stuff, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Okra is such a strange plant.  It’s sticky and goopy on the inside, and, if you spend too much time handling the pods, really itchy on the outside.  Maybe that’s why it’s stayed largely confined to the South, where we all grew up eating the stuff and never thought to question it.

You really don’t even need a recipe to fry up a batch.  It’s a simple dunk-dredge-fry process.  Just mix an egg with some buttermilk (how much, you ask?  I dunno… “some”) and a drop of hot sauce in one bowl, and some flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper in another.  Drop a handful of sliced okra in the egg mixture, toss it around until coated, then remove it with a slotted spoon, letting the excess egg mixture shake off.  Then drop it in the flour mixture, and toss it around again.

While you can deep fry the okra, I’ve found that I much prefer to use a bit of oil in a shallow cast iron skillet.  It’s more economical, as it requires much less oil, and it’s also a good bit less frightening than a full pot of screaming hot cooking fat (or, ahem…. a hot stinking pot of roiling boiling death, as my dad once said).

Frying okra and other veggies is also easier than frying meat, since you don’t have to worry about undercooking.  Just keep a close eye on it (i.e. put the camera down!), flipping the okra once, until the breading is golden brown.  Remove it from the oil with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and dig in.  For best results, pair with extra hot sauce for dipping, a cold, refreshing beer, and a handful of your fellow Southern expats.  Homesickness cured.

Fried Okra
From Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen 

Think of this recipe more as a set of guidelines.  This recipe is way more fun when you leave the measuring cups in the drawer and just play.

2 pounds small okra pods
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 large egg
Dash of hot sauce
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
canola oil, for frying

Rinse and drain the okra, trim the stem ends, and cut the pods crosswise into 1/2 inch rounds.

Place the buttermilk, egg, and hot sauce in a shallow bowl and whisk to combine.  Combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper in a separate shallow bowl and stir to mix.

Pour about 1/2 inch of canola oil into a skillet and place over medium-high heat until sizzling hot.  To test the oil, drop a bit of salt into the skillet; if it sizzles, you’re ready to go.

Working in batches, dip the okra into the buttermilk mixture, shake off any excess, and toss in the cornmeal mixture to coat.  Separate the pieces to prevent clumping.

Carefully place the okra in the oil and fry, turning once or twice, until golden brown all over, 3 to 4 minutes.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried okra to a paper towel-lined bowl or plate.  Serve hot with extra hot sauce for dipping.

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