I maintain that most of the best examples of food that really captures the essence of American cooking comes from the South. This recipe involves okra, incidentally, an often misunderstood vegetable. Alton Brown covered this very well on Good Eats, and I highly recommend you check out that episode.
So I basically threw this recipe together, basing it on the sort of spicy fried okra (bhindi masala) that I’d had both from my mother’s kitchen, as well as Indian buffets I’d been to. The appeal of this dish comes from two main points. First, the blend of spices works really well against the blank canvas of a mundane vegetable like okra. Second, the long frying dries out the mushy insides of the okra, making the skin charred and crispy rather than gross and soggy. I’m personally not as interested in Indian spice blends as certain roommates of mine, so I decided to go with an American spice blend, using stuff I usually keep stocked anyway. And when I say a spice blend, I mean Emeril’s Essence, which is a blend he standardized:
- 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
The onion powder and oregano aren’t as crucial (I’ve always subbed celery seed/celery salt) but the paprika, garlic, and cayenne are the workhorses of this blend, and the ground thyme is probably the next most important after those. Honestly, these are probably things you should have on hand in your spice rack anyhow.
So I start with a bag of Goya frozen okra, which comes chopped up in the bag. Take the widest bottom stainless steel saucepot you have: teflon won’t give you the sort of crust you want, and a narrow saucepan means the okra will be piled up instead of in a thin even layer on the bottom. That’s bad because it means the okra on top is steaming and getting soggy, rather than frying and getting drier like you want. Take a couple tablespoons of oil, enough to cover the bottom in a thin layer, and let it rock on medium to medium-high heat. There are a few key points here:
- Much like a sear, this dish will only succeed in giving you a nice crispy crust if you don’t touch it until it’s on the verge of burning. Stick to somewhere between medium or medium-high heat.
- Your food will not burn as long as it is cooking in the thin layer of oil, as opposed to sitting directly in the pan.
This is one of the dishes that took me a while to get right because you have to play chicken with it. I generally wait until I’m convinced it’s burning, or I smell smoke, and give it another 30 seconds anyway. Turn the okra over, scraping off anything that’s stuck. Let the other side get the same treatment, then when things are mostly crispy, feel free to do some light stirring. Don’t be too rough, or the okra will start to come apart. Blackened cajun spices and crispy okra are the key, otherwise you just have a pile of vegetable mush with paprika in it. It’s worth learning because a bag of okra is really cheap, and this is a side dish that has quite a bit of character, but doesn’t have a lot of complicated prep to it.