52 Foods Week Thirty Six: Okra

I am often impressed by the resolve of Southern vegetarians. To willfully place off limits such a wide swath of one’s regional cuisine would be surprising in any instance, but when that cuisine includes such outstanding dishes as fried chicken and jambalaya and even the vegetables, such as collard greens, have meat as an integral component, it would be hard to fault anyone for renouncing their herbivosity.

One culinary trait I have noticed among my Southern vegetarian friends is both an affinity for and a skill at making fried okra that no omnivore I know has ever demonstrated. I admit to being a bit intimidated by okra preparation, afraid I will create a sticky mess. Lucky for me, as okra season arrived, one of those aforementioned Southern vegetarians expressed interest in helping me make some fried okra for Fifty Two Foods. I nearly stumbled over myself to say yes.

I picked up a pile of okra from Vue Family Farms, and our friend, Anna, brought along a few red okras from another friends’ farm. I handed her a knife and stepped aside while she demonstrated her okra technique. She began by cutting the okra into approximately inch long pieces.

Slicing Okra

While cutting the okra, she instructed me to combine two eggs with a cup of milk in a small bowl.

Eggs and Milk

Next she had me mix two parts cornmeal with one part flour.

Flour and Cornmeal

Soon we had a huge pile of sliced okra. Because there was so much, we had to batter and fry it in batches, which allowed plenty of time to eat one batch of okra while the next cooked.

Lots of Okra

We placed a couple handfuls of okra in the egg-milk mixture and let them soak for about five minutes. Anna says that soaking it removes the sliminess that is the hallmark of poorly made okra.

Soak in Liquid

Next we rolled the okra in the cornmeal mixture.

Dredge in Flour and Cornmeal

Finally, we dropped the battered okra into a pan of hot peanut oil and flipped them frequently so they cooked evenly. When they were crisp—about five minutes—we pulled them out, drained them on newsprint and sprinkled them with a little salt.

Anna Supervises

We made four or five batches in total. After the first couple, we tried adding more spices to the batter. A good spice mix was a healthy dose of “cajun creole seasoning” (paprika, onion, garlic, black pepper, lemon peel, chile, allspice, thyme, cloves, mace, cayenne and bay leaf) along with a few more dashes of cayenne pepper for heat.

For a Spicy Batch

Making fried okra turned out to be pretty easy. What I lacked was direction and confidence, two things that being a vegetarian in the South must really inspire.

Fried Okra

52 Foods Week Twelve: Collard Greens

A few weeks ago, Capay Organic was blowing out collard greens for a dollar a bunch, because “no one cooks collard greens.” While I almost always get collard greens when I eat at Southern restaurants, I had never considered cooking them myself. Committed to being one person who does cook collard greens, I brought a bunch home and attempted to cook them Southern style, guided by little more than memory and some suggestions offered by the admittedly vegetarian woman working the Capay Organic table. That Sunday night, we made some cornmeal crusted rock cod and the collard greens. While they both turned out well, both dishes were first attempts, and I identified several things I wanted to do differently. We did a second run of the fish the next night, but the collard greens would wait a couple weeks.

Going into this, I really only knew two things about making collard greens: they should be a bit vinegary and you have to cook the hell out of them. My greens dealer had mentioned olive oil and garlic, which made plenty good sense. She also suggested balsamic vinegar and honey. The vinegar I was down with, but the honey didn’t feel like a direction I wanted to go. I opted for some dry sherry which would add a touch of sweetness and balance the vinegar while keeping things acidic. To add a bit of spice, I used a teaspoon each of ground mustard and coriander.

Equal Parts Sherry and Balsamic Vinegar

After the first attempt, Jen immediately hit upon the key ingredient that was missing—and, frankly, I was a bit embarrassed to have missed it—pork. I had somehow forgotten that collard greens are always listed in the not vegetarian section of our favorite Southern restaurant’s menu. For our second round, we were sure to correct this omission.

Browsing the Farmers’ Market after picking up two bunches of collard greens, we were pleased to learn of Bledsoe Meats’ new double-smoked slab bacon. John Bledsoe, the friendly and enthusiastic owner of Bledsoe Meats assured us we’d enjoy it (though he later scolded me for using slab bacon and not jowl bacon in my collard greens), and proudly described the 18 hours of smoking it undergoes.

Slab Bacon

I sliced off a couple 1/2″ thick slices of the bacon, then cut those into cubes for a quarter pound of deliciously smoked lardons. Rather than olive oil, I sautéed the lardons until they were about half cooked, then removed them to another pan to finish. I added chopped garlic to the bacon fat, then the rough chopped collard greens, sherry, balsamic vinegar, mustard and coriander. After stirring the greens around for a couple minutes, I added the now crispy lardons, mixed everything together, and covered to cook for an hour.

Add Lardons

While I can’t claim to have made true Southern collard greens, I was quite pleased with the way they came out. The greens were vinegary and toothsome while not being tough, and the bacon (even if it wasn’t jowl) added a smokiness and heartiness that really rounded out the dish.

Michael’s Northern California Style Collard Greens:

2 bunches collard greens
1/4 lb. smoked slab bacon cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 garlic cloves minced
1 tsp. ground mustard
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

In a large skilled or braising pan, sauté bacon until half cooked. Transfer bacon to another pan to finish cooking and add garlic to pan with bacon fat. Sauté garlic until soft, then add chopped collard greens, mustard and coriander. Toss in pan to mix and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add sherry, vinegar and cooked bacon. Mix and cover. Cook 1 hour. Add salt to taste.

Finished Collard Greens

More photos of the entire process here.