Here’s an interesting albeit useless factoid: watermelon is the official vegetable of Oklahoma. That’s right. Watermelon.
Until we moved to Oklahoma, okra was, in my mind, associated solely with Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup. I liked it quite a lot and ate my fair share of it as a kid. I didn’t mind so much the thick slices of okra with their attendant slime. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating okra in any other way. I’d never seen it as a fresh vegetable available in produce sections until we relocated to what is arguably the heart of Okra Country. It’s extremely popular here. Any gardener worth his or her salt wouldn’t dream of planting a garden without several long rows of okra. (Locals find it difficult to believe we don’t have any in our garden.) Generally it is eaten battered and fried – which, let’s face it – makes anything taste good or at least better.
Still. I’ve been afraid, reluctant, prejudiced against it. It’s taken me eight years to purchase and prepare it. But fate forced my hand, in a way. I’m working on a southern-tinged e-book (more on that soon) with a friend who lives in Alabama and I thought it would be nice to have some beauty shots of things that are considered classically southern: a tall glass of sweet tea, fresh ears of corn, and okra. The Whole Foods in Tulsa had two kinds (green and purple) and they looked so nice that it seemed a shame not to get some. Honestly, I really had no intention of doing anything with it other than snapping a few photos. But then I came across a local Tulsa food publication that featured (amazingly) a vegan okra sauté with cherry tomatoes, shallots, balsamic vinegar, and another Oklahoma staple: pecans. Someone up there was trying to tell me something.
I took my beauty shots of the okra for the e-book and then noodled around with this sauté idea. I don’t love balsamic vinegar, but I do love rice wine vinegar and tamari, so I decided to go with a stir fry that would be served with steamed brown rice, toasted pecans (cashews would be nice, too), and plenty of fresh Thai basil, which is busily taking over our garden anyway. I didn’t expect it to taste good.
I was very, very wrong. It tasted so good that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Kel planted a few rows of okra next year. Now that I’m feeling like an honorary Okie, here’s an okra-cooking tip for you: avoid the goo by quickly searing the okra in a very hot pan. Seriously. Slime-free guaranteed.
- 1/4 cup tamari or low sodium soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
- 1 tsp. mirin
- dash red pepper flakes
- dash ground black pepper
- ~15 green or purple okra pods, sliced in half lengthwise
- vegetable broth for sautéing
- 1 small red onion, sliced into thin half moons
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1/4 cup toasted chopped pecans
- Generous handful Thai basil, chopped (some leaves left whole for garnish, if desired)
- Steamed brown rice
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it's good and hot, add a light spritz of cooking spray to the entire surface of the pan. Lower the heat a little and add the okra - putting the cut sides down. You want to sear those first and fast.
- Let the slices brown (but take care not to burn). This should take 4-5 minutes. Carefully flip the slices and lightly brown the other side. This will happen faster on this side so watch closely.
- Remove the okra from the pan and set aside. Carefully wipe out any remaining oil and put the pan back on the heat. Add a generous splash of vegetable broth or water and add the onions. Sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
- Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for a few minutes - you want them heated through and softened, but not bursting. Now, turn off the heat and stir in the tamara-vinegar mixture and the Thai basil. Stir to coat the veggies.
- Divide up some brown rice between 2 deep bowls. Divide the okra mixture between the bowls and top with the toasted pecans and additional Thai basil, if desired. Serve immediately.
- The key to avoiding the slime is to quickly sear the okra in a very hot pan. I used a cast iron pan that was thoroughly pre-heated.
- Double this, of course, if you'd like to serve 4.
- Sliced, sautéed mushrooms are mighty tasty in addition to the other ingredients. Add them to the pan after the onions are slightly softened. Cook for about 5 minutes, then continue with the recipe.