Pair it with tra­di­tional South­ern part­ners – it grows on you

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - RE­NEE STUDE­BAKER

Depend­ing on where you’re from and what your eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences have been, okra is ei­ther a much-adored sum­mer­time side dish — or a slimy ex­cuse for a veg­etable.

I’m def­i­nitely in the first group. I like okra fried, sautéed, pick­led and steamed. I also like it stir-fried so that with each bite I get to taste the crisp-ten­der ex­te­rior giv­ing way to a smooth and slightly squishy in­te­rior. I even like ten­der young okra pods stewed in a saucepan with noth­ing but a lit­tle wa­ter, but­ter, salt and pep­per — the way my Arkansas grand­mother used to cook it on the days when she wasn’t fry­ing it in corn­meal or us­ing it to thicken a pot of veg­etable soup.

If you’re in the sec­ond group, you’re prob­a­bly squinch­ing up your nose about now.

I too would be leery of tra­di­tional South­ern-

style stewed okra if I were an okra-phobe. If cooked a lit­tle too long, stewed okra can be quite slip­pery, not a great sell­ing point for any kind of food, and un­der­stand­ably scary to a per­son with a cau­tious palate.

I didn’t have to go through a cau­tious courtship with okra — I was born into a fam­ily of okra lovers. Be­gin­ning at an early age, I was fre­quently ex­posed to okra’s unique tex­ture and soon learned to ac­cept its vary­ing de­grees of gooey­ness as part of its charm, es­pe­cially when it was plopped on a plate next to some of its South­ern soul-food-mates: pur­ple hull peas, slices of crunchy raw cu­cum­ber, tangy home­grown toma­toes and crisp sweet onion.

This com­bi­na­tion, which I think of as the quin­tes­sen­tial fresh-from-the-sum­mer-gar­den South­ern din­ner plate, is just as sat­is­fy­ing to­day as it was all those years ago. (See recipe, this page.)

And now that farm-fresh din­ners are all the rage, and okra fixed ev­ery imag­in­able way has been show­ing up in award-win­ning cook­books (in­clud­ing “My New Or­leans” by John Besh and “The Lee Bros. Sim­ple Fresh South­ern” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee) and on fine din­ing menus (in­clud­ing Park­side and Uchi), it’s the per­fect time for all of you okra avoiders to get ac­quainted, and maybe even fall in love, with this silky siren of the sum­mer gar­den.

james Brosher

Al­berto Martinez pho­tos

Sautéed, crisp-ten­der okra pods, tossed with heirloom toma­toes, ba­con and a spicy vinai­grette make a lovely light meal. Recipe, D5

Al­berto Martinez pho­tos

Here’s a farmer’s har­vest on a plat­ter: sweet onion, home-grown toma­toes, cu­cum­bers and pur­ple hull peas, topped off with fried okra. Dash on a le­mon vinai­grette – made with cane sugar or honey to sweeten the tang – and you have a meal both fresh and re­fresh­ing.

Col­or­ful in fo­liage as well as in its blos­soms, okra is one of the most drought-tol­er­ant veg­eta­bles. And it’s re­lated to the source of marsh­mal­lows. See? Okra’s great.

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