Southern food is part of my heritage. Even though I grew up in Northwest Indiana—and among some in my family, I’m considered a Yankee—my fondest childhood memories involve southern food. And one of my favorites has always been fried okra. Yes, southerners fry everything, but okra, when not in gumbo, needs to be fried. Otherwise, it isn’t edible.
Actually, that isn’t wholly true—this weird little pod was brought over to the colonies by slaves who introduced it to Europeans/Americans, and it eventually became part of the Soul Food canon. Slaves took it to Brazil, too, and it was there, in Salvador, that I had an okra sauce over rice as part of an Africa-inspired meal. Really good.
But in my youth, fried okra was the thing, and today I set out to duplicate it. To go along with this traditional dish, I decided to make fried chicken as well, using Ina Garten’s oven-fried chicken. I’ve never been good at making fried chicken the way my mother did, on the stove top in a big iron skillet, and if my mother ever gave me specific instructions as to how to go about that, they didn’t stick. I do have a clear memory of her showing me how to make fried okra, though, using the same iron skillet she used for chicken…and corn and corn bread and just about everything else. I'm not sure how old I was, maybe in high school or maybe younger. Maybe it was after that time I thought I'd be helpful and make dinner while she was at work, and I opened a can of okra and boiled it in a pot like a big gloppy mess of slime.
Well, this evening, I combined what I remember from her lesson with a recipe from the Lee Brothers, masters of southern cooking. My sister sent their cookbook to me as a gift, and I pull it out for just this sort of thing. I should say that I didn’t quite follow the instructions. 1—instead of using an iron skillet, which I don’t own, I used the same deep pot I used for the chicken. You’ll have to read that recipe to know why it’s a good idea. 2—I eyed the half-inch-thick slicing and went a little big a few times. 3—I used shortening instead of oil.
Here is the recipe:
4 cups peanut or canola oil
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds fresh okra, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds (about 7 cups)
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
Sea salt to taste (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. 2. Heat the oil in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or a 3-quart enameled cast-iron casserole until the temperature on a candy thermometer reads 375 degrees. 3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk until they are well combined, about 1 minute. In a medium bowl, sift the cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper together twice. Add the okra to the egg mixture and toss until it is evenly coated. Scatter half the dredge over the okra and toss to coat. Scatter the remaining dredge over the okra and toss again. 4. Transfer about one-third of the okra to the oil with a slotted spoon and fry in batches, turning as necessary with the spoon, until the slices are golden brown all over, about 2 minutes per batch. 5. Using the slotted spoon, transfer the okra to a plate lined with a double thickness of paper towels. When it has drained, transfer to a ceramic serving dish that holds heat well and place in the oven until ready to serve. 6. Dust the okra with red pepper flakes and sea salt, if desired, and pass a cruet of Pepper Vinegar around the table when you serve.
And here is a photo journal of my experience making it:
|Okra waiting to be doused in dredging meal.|
|Half a batch frying in shortening for about 3 minutes.|
|Food of my childhood.|