Last week I went with Kishmish and Pista to a new Mexican supermarket in our neighborhood. I was just trying to get them home from the playground before they both wilted away in the searing mid-day heat (whose idea was it to make playgrounds out of metal and without shade?), and to pick up a few things to get us through the day. Turns out, Mi Tierra (true to its name!) has a decent produce section, and there was a decent-looking basket of okra that seemed worthwhile.
I have all kinds of desires to be closer to the land, but the truth is that I’ve rarely successfully grown anything, and very rare indeed have my efforts at gardening yielded anything that a person could actually eat. In the garden we used to keep at my hippy co-op house in Brooklyn, though, I did manage to grow from seed a few incredible okra plants. I had never grown okra, and I found them to be the most fascinating little plants — the pod seems to emerge from the stem of the plant alien-ly, and fresh okra is tender and almost furry in a way you would never imagine if you are used to store-bought okra of the raw or frozen variety. We would pick the 3-8 okra pods that constituted a weekly crop, and since there’s not much you can do with so little okra, we’d slice and fry in a little cornmeal batter. Delicious, but not particularly worth all the time and hot oil unless the okra is just amazing to begin with.
Being spoiled about okra is especially unfortunate given the fact that, before those awe-inspiring co-op plants yielded much fruit, September 11 happened and we found our garden covered with an odd dust. I think we assumed the dust would be harmless, and the garden would continue to yield fruits and vegetables, but over the next few days — when, I’ll admit, there was not much more to do than mull over the fate of the world and watch the garden — the okra plants gave up. Turning colors that are not typical of a garden wilting in the fall or drying up in a drought, the plants sort of went grey. And that was it.
1) The dust . . . I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but this post coincides with my unfortunately picking up this book Dust on the new releases shelf at the library (just in time for the 10th Anniversary!), then promptly returning it when when I realized that if what happened to the okra took place somewhere in my lungs, things are not going to turn out very well. Sigh.
2) The okra. . . there are a few kinds of okra recipes that we have going in our house. Let’s categorize:
– the ones that can be made with any old crappy okra, just to satisfy in a very slight way a desire to eat something that tastes like okra
-the ones that require slightly decent fresh okra (like today’s)
-the ones that require actual tender, fuzzy okra, because the whole dish depends on the okra’s integrity
This recipe won’t work with tough, fibrous okra, and it won’t work with okra that have been cut and frozen. (The latter require very special attention or, as my friend Natasha graphically and 100% accurately put it, eating them is like biting into some kind of weird furry, guts-filled creature.) But it’s July, almost August, and with any luck you’ll see some perfect okra for this purpose in a market some time soon. This is one of the ways my mother-in-law prepares okra, and I think it looks so pretty and gives a nice change from other preparations.
1 pound okra
2 Tbsp cooking oil
1 small tomato, chopped
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
2-3 dried red chillies
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 lime (optional)
2 tsp salt
1) Wash the okra, dry them thoroughly, and slice lengthwise into quarters. [The okra have to be absolutely dry, or they WILL become slimy and inedible when cooked. Even when totally dry, this is the trickiest, nastiest thing that must be avoided when cooking okra. We are not trying to create a gumbo.]
2) Heat the oil in a wok or kadhai. Add mustard seeds, let them crackle, then add cumin seeds.
3) Turn the flame down, add onions and a little salt. Stir and let the onions cook until transparent.
4) Add the red chillies, stir, and let them soften up a little.
5) Keeping the flame low, pour in the okra slices and the turmeric powder. Give everything a good stir to coat the vegetables in the spices.
6) Keep stirring periodically so the okra doesn’t stick to the pan. Add a little oil, if you get desperate, but DO NOT add water. I promise you will regret it.
7) When the okra is bright green but not quite cooked, add the chopped tomato. If you find tomato objectionable, squeeze the juice of a lime into the pan. I think you can even put a little yogurt or dry mango powder. The idea is to add something acidic; this (for reasons I don’t really understand) cuts the stringiness of the okra. It also tastes nice.
8) At this point, you can cover the pan, keep the flame low, and let the okra finish cooking. If I am planning to serve the food later in the evening, I’ll leave it on the stove not-quite-cooked and covered. Re-heating it is enough to do the last little bit of cooking. I like leaving the okra slices a bit firm — what some people would call “undercooked.” If you are dealing wtih sticklers for fully-cooked food then, by all means, let your vegetables soften up a bit more before serving.