I have been fascinated by okra on two occasions that I can recall. I was first introduced to the vegetable when I discovered through some Internet research on popcorn that fried okra is a popular snack/side/delicacy in the South, where it is sometimes known as Texas Popcorn. A) I’m not sure I’d ever had or really ever known of fried okra before that moment, and B) I certainly didn’t know it was sometimes called Texas Popcorn. As one who is interested in regional dishes and eating traditions, learning about a dish ubiquitous to a fairly large region, with such a whimsical name to boot, intrigued me.
The second time okra surprised me was during a recent trip to New Orleans where I learned that the sticky, slimy innards of okra make a great thickening agent for soups and gumbos, again in the South.
While at a farmer’s market in Nashville this past weekend, I picked up some okra with the intention of using using it in one of the above two ways (thickener for soup or straight-up fried). I got on MyRecipes.com, a recipe database owned by Time Inc, the publisher of Cooking Light and Southern Living, among others, and found a very simple recipe:
In a medium bowl, soak 15 okra pods sliced one-half-inch thick in a beaten egg for 10 minutes. Dredge in seasoned corn meal, and fry in vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain on a plate covered with a paper towel.
Here’s where things could have gone better. Not having cornmeal, I used unbleached white flour instead which left something to be desired. I once read that when seasoning the breading for fried chicken, the flour/cornmeal is seasoned sufficiently once you can taste the salt if you place a pinch of the mixture on your tongue. Not wanting to over-salt the flour, I left it too bland.
It sure was pretty though. As my Texas Popcorn began to turn golden brown in the oil, the house filled with the down-home smell of “fried,” and it felt like a really nice Sunday afternoon.
As we ate the greasy morsels, I salted a ketchup/sirracha chile pepper paste mixture to help coax out the flavor of the fried okra. It’s really amazing to me how salt can brighten up a dish, enhancing its taste. This helped a little but it would have been better if I’d used well-seasoned cornmeal.
Nonetheless it was a good process and a tasty treat in spite of my failings. My experimentation may have even left me a little more intrigued with this little slimy pod that I was before.