Few vegetables evoke more polarized reactions than okra. To people who love it, its texture is wonderfully dense and sticky. To people who hate it, its texture is appallingly slimy.
The Regional Divide
For a long time, the okra divide was regional. Southerners who grew up eating fried okra and okra-thickened gumbo loved the pod; Northerners were wary of it. But this gap is narrowing -- okra's popularity has grown along with the spread of previously unfamiliar world cuisines, and as that has happened it's also become more widely available. Now, okra is no longer just a staple of the Deep South; Americans eat it in Indian curries, African stews, and Caribbean sauces.
How to Choose Okra
This doesn't mean every home cook is comfortable with cooking okra; perhaps because it looks nothing like any familiar vegetable, it can intimidate even experienced cooks. Identifying and selecting good okra is easy, though. Okra pods are usually green (though sometimes purple) and are covered in a light fuzz, like peaches. They range dramatically in size -- some large ones exceed six inches in length-but generally, pods under 3 inches long are better in flavor and texture than bigger ones. As with all produce, shriveled, blemished, or mushy specimens ought to be avoided. Okra can be found year round in some parts of the South but is at its best and most abundant in summer.
Preparing okra is simple-once you cut off the stem of each pod, you're good to go. The tough part is cooking okra in such a way that its sliminess is either minimized or put to good use.
Ways to Cook Okra
The best way to reduce viscousness and make okra crisp and dry is to fry it. You can fry pods whole or thickly sliced, and you can bread them in flour or cornmeal, which is how it's traditionally done in the South. But I've fallen in love with a streamlined version that involves julienning the okra into slivers that become fabulously brown and crunchy in the hot oil. (To julienne just means to cut into matchsticks of around the same length and thickness -- no need to get too fussy.) Brightened with tomato, onion, lemon juice, fresh herbs, and spices, this dish will change the mind of anyone who thinks they don't like okra.
Frying will convince you that okra doesn't have to be slimy -- but stewing will convince you that okra's glutinous texture can actually be a good thing, since it eliminates the need to add cornstarch, flour, or other thickeners to broth. Indian spices add warmth, coconut milk adds richness, and tomato and lime juice add enough acid to cut through the okra's pulp -- ensuring that the curry is thick but not too thick. Keep the heat gentle, not brutal, and check for doneness often -- overcooking is never a good thing with okra -- and you'll be rewarded with a delicious vegetarian main dish that requires no accompaniment beyond basmati rice.
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