Posts Tagged ‘okra’

 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.

I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.

After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.

We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).

I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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Beloved Spouse is the gumbo cook in our household. In summer, when okra is abundant, he gathers his ingredients about him and produces a gumbo that IMHO equals anything a New Orleans chef can do. I’ve written here about his seafood gumbo, and now I’d like to introduce you to another kind that he makes.

Usually, he starts from the gumbo recipes in Richard and Rima Collins’ The New Orleans Cookbook, checks back with the chosen one from time to time to remind himself of details, but then goes on to vary the ingredients and proportions to suit himself. Always using okra: He’s not a filé gumbo person, and he has a decided preference for the kind of flavor an okra gumbo develops.


For this occasion a large boneless chicken breast, two Louisiana andouilles, and a chunk of thick-cut boiled ham provided the protein base. He cut the chicken into chunks, the sausages into coins, and the ham into dice. Continuing the preparatory knife work, he then sliced ¾ pound of okra (Note to the squeamish: If the okra, your knife, and the cutting surface are dry, the okra slime will not be a problem) and chopped up a cup of green pepper, a cup of onions, ¼ cup of scallions, and a large heirloom tomato. Very simple prep work, if a little time consuming.  My only contribution was to set out the other ingredients he’d be needing: olive oil, flour, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, cayenne, salt and black pepper.

gumbo ingredients

After browning the chicken pieces in olive oil and removing them to a plate, he stirred flour into the oil and cooked it about 10 minutes, to a light brown roux. Then the andouille, ham, and all the vegetables except the okra and tomato got added in and stirred. After 10 more minutes, the chicken rejoined the pot, along with all the spices and a little water. This cooked for yet another 10 minutes and then – finally – in went the okra, tomatoes, and a quart of water.

gumbo broth

At this point, the pot got covered and the gumbo cooked gently for an hour, with an occasional stir, after which it was done. I was permitted to check occasionally to be sure it was continuing to simmer and that nothing was sticking. And at dinner time, I cooked the rice.

gumbo plated

This was a terrific gumbo. The andouilles’ own spices had permeated all the ingredients, giving a much needed boost to the bland chicken breast. (The chef wished ardently that we had had some legs and thighs on hand.) All the vegetables merged seamlessly into a stew that tasted purely of New Orleans. And, as always, we wound up eating most of a portion that was supposed to feed four.

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Even as a child, I hated okra. My mother never cooked it, but one of her friends seemed to serve it, stewed, every time we went to dinner at her house, and I always loathed the slimy stuff. In later years, when I became interested in New Orleans cooking, I would make only filé gumbo, not okra gumbo. (This involved picking, drying, and grinding sassafras leaves for my own filé powder, which I actually could do when Tom and I lived in the suburbs.)

Tom, however, whose childhood was not blighted by repulsive okra dishes, inexplicably (to me) liked okra gumbo, so I had to learn to tolerate the pestilential vegetable. But he had to be the gumbo cook, because I couldn’t bear to look at the nasty, viscous ooze in the cooking pot.

Once it was thoroughly cooked, along with the crabs and shrimps and other flavorful things that gumbos can be made with, I didn’t mind the flavor of the okra, and so we went on for a number of years – he happily, me resignedly. We never did anything else with okra.

Then, just recently, my friend Joan was raving about an Indian okra dish she had discovered. It sounded different from anything I’d ever known about okra. She sent me the recipe, but a major ingredient was chaat masala. I wasn’t sure I’d like the dish enough to buy some, and my pantry (good as I think it is) doesn’t run to asafetida, mango powder, and black salt, which I’d need to make it at home. So I looked for other recipes in my own Indian cookbooks.

I’ve had Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking for years and made many excellent dishes from it, but now for the first time I looked at the pages with okra recipes. The first one’s headnote started, “If there is one vegetable that is grossly misunderstood and underrated it is okra.” I could well understand why! Then it went on to the revelation that, in its small way, changed my life: “Sliminess results only when cut okra comes in contact with water.”


Wow! Was that possible? Skeptically, I gritted my teeth and determined to try the recipe with half a pound of fresh okra.

The recipe is called Bhindi Sabzi, and it’s a simple stir-fry. You wash the okra and dry it very thoroughly. Then cut it in quarter-inch rounds. I made Tom do this, because I couldn’t believe it wouldn’t immediately ooze slime, as it always used to do when he’d slice it right after washing and draining it in a colander. To the surprise of us both, this time it didn’t.

Then the okra is tossed into a hot skillet with vegetable oil and some chopped green chilies. Even hating okra, I’d had to admit it made very pretty, quincunxy slices, and so it did this time.

So I sautéed it and stirred it until it became lightly browned (never salting it until it was done, lest the salt draw out water and – ugh! – slime). It ended up as a very nice, simple vegetable dish, firm-tender, pleasantly and distinctively flavored. The mince of chili blended with the okra’s slightly sweet, slightly spicy flavor to make a good accompaniment to any grilled meat.

One caution: Sahni says to cook the okra initially over high heat, then medium heat for 20 minutes, and then high heat again to brown it. I have to admit, the first time I did this, the okra burned in the last few minutes.

First attempt — overcooked

But even the burnt bits tasted good enough that I chose to make the recipe again, cooking it for quite a bit less time than she indicated.

Second attempt — undercooked?

As you can see, in my second attempt the okra was barely browned, and I think it would have benefited from more time on the stove to crisp it. But that’s cooking – trial and error, until you get a dish the way you really like it. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed okra enough that I can see myself working with it until I get it right.

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