The basis of of this delicious autumnal jackpot of a recipe is thanks to
the estimable Martha Rose Shulman, food editor at The New York Times. I saw a link to her recipe on Twitter, and as I just happened to have a wee bag of the hairy little guys, I thought I’d have a go. The okra was originally destined for a dip in spiced cornmeal and then shallow-fried to crispy Southern perfection, but this sounded much healthier, and indeed would be a main meal.
We really loved it, so much so that I had to hide the pan away so that it could be re-presented the next day: ‘Greed, not need’ seems to be our family motto.
Not that one couldn’t have a meal of crisped okra nuggets, of course. Back in the day, a big treat for my sister and I would be a trip to Piccadilly cafeteria. Have you experienced a Piccadilly? Non-US readers will have no idea what I’m on about, but some of you may have fond memories of – and still visit – this Southern US chain of cafeteria-style restaurants. Hungry customers shuffle past a line of temptation, asking for servings of cornbread muffins, Cajun baked fish, chicken-fried steak with creamy gravy, pea salad, stewed turnip greens, buttermilk chess pie, and more – all good Southern, rib-sticking delicacies. The drink is always ‘sweet tea’ – cold and sugared to high Heaven. In my town’s local branch you are cheerfully served up by ample women with strikingly blue frosted eyeshadow and witty one-liners. Where else can you get all that?
Other than their delectable fried chicken, fried okra was my favourite choice (do you see a theme emerging?). Even when I became a vegetarian I would ask on trip’s back home to be taken to Piccadilly for a fix of fried okra and a melamine bowl of turnip greens, dishes not known in the UK. Sadly, in more recent years the okra standards seemed to have slipped and it was often cold (ugh). But nothing a heavy dousing with Louisiana hot sauce couldn’t cure. I’m visiting family in October so I might have to pay a call in the name of research.
Nutrition notes: Okra is not a nutritional ‘anti-cancer’ superstar like some veg one could name (broccoli, cabbage, beetroot, yada yada), but when I looked it up I was pleasantly surprised at what it did contain. I guess something as potentially unloveable as okra would have to have something going for it. Indeed it has undergone something of a rehabilitation in the foodie world, mainly because it is such an easy to grow, year-round crop in warm-temperate climes, and of course the ever-growing taste we have for dishes from North African and the Indian sub-continent.
Okra is a pretty good source of riboflavin, niacin, iron, zinc and copper, and is a very good source of useful fibre, beta-carotene, Vitamin C(35% of RDA per serving), Vitamin K, thiamin, folate, calcium (8% of RDA per serving), magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese. Not too shabby, huh?
Buying Tips: Specimens should be firm and dry, with a fuzz similar to that you would find on a peach (but a bit spikier). Look for ones medium to dark in colour, with no blemishes, dark spots, wetness or soft stems. Ones grown for the UK market come from India but I know of some folk who are able to grow their own. You can find them easily at Tesco and Morrisons, and of course independent shops that sell ‘ethnic’ produce and spices. In the US, well, you are awash with the hairy bullets at this time of year. By the way, just picked okra is less sticky and also rather delicious raw, washed and dipped into lemony hummus. Here is a link to a collection of healthy, tasty-looking okra recipes.
North African Okra and Potato Tagine with Spiced Crispy Tofu
This recipe is one I adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s Algerian Okra, Potato and Tomato Tagine. As okra is a bit dear here in the UK, I have used less but added texture-contrasting celery and green beans. I have also messed around with the spicing, adding some things, taking others out or adjusting their amount. The crisped tofu is completely left-field, but one I think works perfectly with the spicing and textures. If you don’t eat tofu perhaps coat bite-sized nuggets of fish or Quorn in the spice mix and sauté these instead. Although Shulman leaves out obvious protein (potatoes and okra have incomplete protein) I like to make sure that a main dish contains it – more filling and more nutritionally balanced. And more stuff to dredge in lovely, heady spices.
Just a further note, the vinegar soaking step is not just a little whim of mine, it is a very Southern trick to reduce the stickiness that you can get with okra. Even if you are just going to coat okra in cornmeal and fry it (or healthier stewing), try this trick and you will enjoy your Southern delight even more.
500g okra, both ends trimmed
100ml apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar
1.5 kg new potatoes, or fingerling potatoes
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 red onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
500g tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 & 1/2 tbsp spice mix, divided (may need more if you like it spicier)
4 tbsps tomato paste dissolved in 200ml water or vegetable stock
200g fine beans/green beans OR runner beans (more seasonal for UK)
200g firm tofu, liquid pressed out (wrap in paper towels and press)
Salt and pepper, as required
30g each parsley and coriander/cilantro, chopped
1 tbsp black pepper
¼ tsp ground cardamom (or crushed seeds from 4 green pods)
½ tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp hot or smoked paprika
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp powdered sumac
½ tsp ground fennel seeds (I grind mine with a pestle and mortar after toasting) – Mix all of these together and store in a glass jar, away from light and heat.
Put the trimmed okra into a large non-reactive bowl. Salt well and douse with vinegar. Let the okra sit for 30 minutes – stirring occasionally – while you prepare the other ingredients. Drain and rinse and slice the okra. Cut the potatoes, if need be, into generous chunks; smaller potatoes, leave whole for maximum nutrition.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy casserole dish or tagine. Add the onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add the garlic and stir for a further minute before adding the chopped tomatoes, celery and 1 tbsp of spice mix. Simmer this – about 10 minutes – before adding the loosened tomato paste and bringing to a simmer.
Add the potatoes, okra and beans. Cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes, adding a little more stock or water if it starts to seem dry. The sauce should be thick towards the end of the cooking time. Season to taste and stir in most of the herbs.
While the stew is doing its thing, cube the tofu and toss in the remaining spice mix. Heat the oil in a non-stick sauté pan and add the seasoned tofu. Let one side crisp up before flipping and crisping further. Remove the tofu from the pan and lay on on a paper towel. You could also ‘fry’ this on an oiled baking try in a hot oven – about 12-15 minutes, flipping halfway through. Use the tofu pieces as a topping (like croutons!) for the okra tagine. Top with the extra herbs. This tastes fantastic the next day so either make double/save enough for leftovers or make ahead and eat new the next day, sautéing the tofu just before serving. Serves 4-6