The Artist

OKRA

You Love It or You Hate It

BY GEORGEANNE BRENNAN

As a child, I hated okra. I couldn’t imagine how my mother and grandmother could swoon over each bite of the nasty green pod they simmered with tomatoes and onions.

Normally, my mother was a sophisticated and adventuresome cook, plying us with everything from French Coq au Vin to California-style Avocados Stuffed with Shrimp. However, she was from Texas, and her mother from Tennessee, and every once in a while, Southern dishes like stewed okra, black-eyed peas, cornbread and coconut cream pie would appear on our family table. When one did, my mother would explain that it reminded her of her early years growing up in Fort Worth and of her mother.

As an adult, I now completely understand why my mother and grandmother liked okra. My first revelation came many years ago when I was working on a vegetable cookbook with a botanist friend who had spent several years living in Georgia. She explained to me that the infamous okra slime, which starts oozing the minute the pod is cut into, dissipates with cooking.

“Don’t let that early slime stop you from eating okra.”

We made stewed okra that day and had it for lunch with a little steamed rice. I went from the dark side into the light. The pods were cooked just to falling apart, and their plump white seeds had begun to dot the onion and garlic tomato mixture. The taste was rich and fulfilling with a texture that showed no trace of anything mucilaginous. We washed it down with a glass of red wine, and retired from the table, satisfied.

My second okra revelation came from Michael Schwab, the noted Marin-based graphic artist whose illustration of the glorious pod appears here. I had been working on the book Apéritif with his wife, the gifted photographer Kathryn Kleinman, and I first met Michael when they had come to my house for a Sunday lunch.

Michael was walking in my garden and suddenly cried out, “Oh my God! Okra! Let’s pick some!” He immediately started picking the small pods, so I grabbed a basket and we filled it up.

The outdoor pizza oven, which had been an earlier attraction, was completely forgotten. We went into the kitchen and Michael said he just wanted to fry that okra up right away. I secretly hoped that it would not be slimy, because I didn’t want to offend him by not eating it.

I got him what he asked for: cutting board, sharp knife, cornmeal, salt, pepper, a paper bag and oil—I gave him olive oil—and a big frying pan. He sliced the pods into 1/2-inch-thick rounds—and, yes, they oozed. As his assistant, I followed his instructions: “Put about a half cup cornmeal in the bag, then add some salt and pepper, and shake it up.” I did as I was told.

He put about 1/8 inch of oil in the frying pan over a medium-hot flame. He shook that bag over his shoulder like a bartender shakes a martini, then reached into the bag and gathered up a handful of the coated okra, letting the excess cornmeal slip through his fingers, before dropping the okra into the hot oil.

Within minutes, we were standing around the kitchen counter, eating fried okra with our fingers, smacking our lips over the crispy golden bites. I called my husband and Kathryn to join us, and, accompanied with ice cold beer and crisp white wine, we polished off the whole platter.

The recipe, it turned out, was from Michael’s Grandmother Ellie. Michael, who is an Oklahoma boy, had a grandmother from Mississippi, and it’s her dishes he remembers most.

“We had big meals with my grandparents at the ranch, with a tender beef roast, fried catfish or quail, potatoes, and lots of vegetables from the garden. She canned her own sweet tomato chili sauce with onions and sugar—so delicious on burgers. I make that myself now, and I hope my boys will too, carrying on the experience.”

Part of the pleasure of cooking is about the opportunity to pass on memories and experiences through food, and hopefully, to see those passed on to the next generation. So far, I’ve only had one taker for my okra memories—my stepson, Dan. After the epiphany with Michael Schwab that summer, I started to cook fried okra as well as stewed. One night I got lazy, and decided to try just frying it up, without the cornmeal and flour. I added some garlic, chopped onion and corn off the cob to the sliced pods and served it for dinner. Dan loved it and asked for it all summer long. He cooks it himself now, but he hasn’t yet convinced his Stephanie to sample his special okra and corn dish. Maybe one night, when she and Dan are over for dinner, I’ll try out this recipe for Stewed Okra and Tomatoes on her.

Illustration by Michael Schwab. One of America’s leading graphic artists, Michael’s super star line up of clients includes the Golden Gate National Parks, Robert Mondavi and Apple, Inc. Michael also designed the cover of the first anniversary issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country. MichaelSchwab.com

Georgeanne Brennan is an award-winning cookbook author, journalist and teacher. Her latest book is Salad of the Day (Weldon Owen, 2013). She lives on a small farm in Northern California. For more information about Georgeanne, her farm products and her work, visit GeorgeanneBrennan.com.

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WHAT’S IN SEASON

IN MARIN, NAPA AND SONOMA COUNTIES JUNE • JULY • AUGUST

FRUITS

Apples

Apricots

Asian pears

Blackberries

Blueberries

Boysenberries

Cherries

Figs

Grapes

Melons

Nectarines

Peaches

Pears

Plums

Pluots

Raspberries

Strawberries

VEGETABLES

Arugula

Asian greens

Basil

Beans

Beets

Broccoli

Cabbage

Cactus pads

Carrots

Celery

Chard

Corn

Cress

Cucumbers

Eggplant

Endive

Fava beans

Fennel

Garlic (new crop)

Herbs

Kale

Kohlrabi

Leeks

Lettuces

Mushrooms

Okra

Onions

Peppers, chili

Peppers, sweet

Potatoes

Purslane

Radicchio

Radish

Rhubarb

Shallots

Spinach

Squash, summer

Tomatillos

Tomatoes,

heirloom & standard

STEWED OKRA AND TOMATOES

This is my memory of my mother and grandmother’s dish. Serve it over rice or on its own.

Yield: 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound small okra pods, no more than 1 to 2 inches long, with tip left intact

4 tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

TO PREPARE

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and sauté, stirring, until limp, 3 to 4 minutes Add the garlic and sauté briefly, then add the okra and cook, stirring, until the okra turns bright green, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the onion is soft and the okra pods are tender and have just split, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve hot or at room temperature.

Adapted from The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans (Mirabelle Press, 2012).

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