Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
Have you gotten the impression that we're drowning in produce here? Good. We want to make ourselves clear.
Having lots of produce can be seen as a burden or a blessing. You can allow yourself to be snowed under and simply fester there, or you can do as we do and try to use the overload as an opportunity to be creative. Worst case scenario: you fail and still have way too much of a good thing left over.
Here at the Joy Kitchen, we like to take the lemons that life hands us and make Ohio Shaker Lemon Pie. We take the bumper crop of jalapenos and make chipotles en adobo. We take the unending trickle of okra and make okra fritters. Logical enough, right?
Okra is one of those vegetables that plays hard to get. The leaves of the plant have tiny prickly hairs on them that make your skin itch when you brush against them. The pods themselvescan be spiny. And, as we all know, cooking okra can be a gooey, slimy mess. Most people skip the drama and just buy bags of frozen breaded okra.
However, we know better. Okra has many appealing characteristics that have made it one of the darlings of Creole and Indian cuisine. As we have learned from our own garden this year, okra is extremely hardy, proving successful in very hot, dry climates. Our okra currently stands six feet tall and is the most robust thing growing in the garden even after record temperatures and weeks without rain.
Okra is also a member of the hibiscus family, and it unfurls its gorgeous hibiscus-like flowers every morning, making it somewhat of an ornamental in addition to being an alimentary crop. Finally, both the pods and leaves of the plant are excellent when used as thickeners in soups and stews. This is what makes it such an indispensable component of gumbo.
As with many love-it-or-hate-it foods, okra is really only as good as your method. Cooked properly, okra can be fabulous--it has a subtle, green flavor that needs little adornment. In fact, one of my favorite ways to eat okra is raw, with a simple dressing such as a homemade buttermilk ranch or Green Goddess dressing.
Bear in mind that once okra has grown too large, it will be tough and stringy no matter how you cook it. Some varieties of okra tend to be more tender than others. If you buy okra at a farmer's market, ask vendors if they will let you try a sample. The okra should be tender but firm and crunch pleasantly when you bite into it.
For the skeptics among you, I present a simple yet supremely satisfying dish: okra fritters. Thinly sliced, in a simple batter with fresh corn, okra becomes downright seductive. Serve it with a straightforward relish or the selfsame homemade buttermilk ranch dressing mentioned above. We like to shallow fry with canola oil, but corn, peanut, coconut, safflower, or vegetable oils also work well.
Combine in a medium bowl:
1/2 pound tender okra, caps removed, thinly sliced
1 small onion, minced
1 ear corn, cut from the cob
1/2 cup white or yellow cornmeal, not coarse
1/2 cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Heat in a large, nonstick skillet over medium to medium-high heat until hot:
3 tablespoons oil (canola, peanut, corn, safflower, or coconut oil will work)
Using a 1/4-cup measure, scoop portions of the fritter mixture into the skillet and flatten. Fry until golden brown, about 4 minutes, then flip and fry 4 minutes longer, until both sides are brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.