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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lady Fingers

What's in a name? Abelmoschus esculentus. Bhindi. Bamia. Lady fingers. Bendi. Gombo. Okra.
However it's labeled, the slender slime filled pods elicit different responses from different people. It's a love hate thing. Me? I have a total lusty affection for okra and wholeheartedly embrace the slime. That said, it's not all about the slime factor. Granted, when used to thicken Louisiana gumbos or low country okra stews, the mucilaginous stuff melts into the base and disappears. Tricky. It's there without really being there. Makes me smile. Crossing continents and oceans, okra can be found in almost every cuisine throughout the world. While it might not have taken a few European countries by storm, it's revered in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, South America, the Caribbean, the southern United States, and Kentucky.  That's a love thing. Over the years, I've prepared huge vats and steam kettles filled with creole/cajun sauces containing hundreds of pounds of okra for Mardi Gras merry makers. Even the okra haters gobbled it up.

When not in season, frozen okra is a great understudy for stews and gumbos. Fresh okra, on the other hand, is a real game changer in other preparations. Keep an eye out. Fresh local okra is rolling into farmers markets with unabashed abandon. This year, while the small green pods are still the most common, Stonehedge Farm has pulled out the big guns with Red Burgundy okra. Twisted, long, slender, and gorgeous, they're the fancy pants of the okra world.


I adore combining okra with tomatoes. Fresh or frozen okra. Sun-ripened or canned tomatoes. It's a classic pairing. Right now, it's all about fresh okra and sun-kissed tomatoes. As much as I love hoarding the culls and ugly castaway red tomatoes from the market for cooking, I  gravitate toward super ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes during the peak summer season for an okra hoot-a nanny.

Red Burgundy Okra with Sun Gold Tomatoes.
Not quite a stew. Not quite a gumbo or saute'. Simply, okra and tomatoes with a few twists.

I halved 2 pints of Paw Paw Plantation Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into dry cast iron skillet. After seasoning them with salt and pepper, I cranked the heat to high and sauteed the tomatoes until they started to break down. When the sweet pulp oozed from the skins, I mashed the tomatoes with back of a fork to release the rest of the juices and deglazed the skillet with 1/2 cup white wine. As the wine reduced, the skins separated form the pulp and floated to the top. I drained the tomatoes and wine through a medium strainer to catch the skins before returning the remaining pulpy juice to the skillet. After the wine reduced to a silken
glaze, I added 2 cups of chicken stock and let the golden tomato stock bubble away until it reduced by half.

Here's the deal. To slime or not to slime? While I could have gone either way, I wanted a bit of crunch to offset the sweet stewed tomatoes. Typically, I blister okra in a very hot skillet to seal the pods with heat. To keep the prep as simple as possible, I took an easier route.  After slicing the burgundy okra pods in half lengthwise, I dropped them into a deep fryer (350 degrees) to flash fry for about 3 minutes. When the split pods were charred and caramelized, I scooped them from the hot oil to drain on paper towels.

I pulled the tomato stock from the heat and tumbled the fried okra into the steaming sauce. To brighten and echo the flavor of the stewed tomatoes, I tumbled a few halved fresh Sun Gold tomatoes around the skillet before finishing (on a whim) with fresh thyme, file' powder, and a heavy-handed dusting of hot smoked paprika.

Simple and rustic, it seemed innocent enough. The okra, suspended over the sauce, crackled and snapped. The stewed tomatoes tasted like wet melted tomato jam. When the okra pods collapsed into the stock and softened, the swollen seeds spilled into the mix like slippery edible pearls. Spice. While the ground sassafras added an earthy level of heat, the hot smoked paprika added pure fire. Innocence lost. The combination of the two added an unexpected explosive depth of flavor and complexity that belied the simplicity of a quick stew/saute'.

Sweet heat.
Lady fingers.
What's in a name?
Fresh Kentucky okra.

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