Applaud the Pod: Okra, okra, okra!

Okra:  Pickled, fried, and in a martini.   pickle okra_martini

My first introduction to okra was in the form of cornmeal-crusted deep fried bites in a Louisville diner.  Crunchy, salty, greasy goodness.  Yum.  After that, I looked for okra all over the South, trying the pod in its many and various forms:  stewed with tomatoes, with onions and spice topping rice, folded into gumbo, and of course, fried.  Deep fried, pan fried, fried in bacon fat or peanut oil.

As a grown-up, though, my absolute favorite okra treat is a crunchy, spicy, garlicky okra pickle.  Even better if it’s a whole skewer full of them lined up on the rim of a Bloody Mary glass, or on the advice of my girlfriend who we’ll call Tennessee Redneck Martini, in place of olives for a truly bodacious dirty martini.  If this doesn’t convert you to okra, then I gladly throw in the towel.

When we lived in Phoenix (down the street from my aforementioned girlfriend TN Red Martini) I grew okra right alongside my artichoke plants, collard greens, and rainbow chard.  The desert growing season being both long and hot enough there to produce a bumper crop every year, provided I spent plenty of time watering.  Seeing the combination of crazy purple artichoke blooms, variegated chard, and spiky outrageous okra plants taller than me made me smile every day: it was like my own personal Little Shop of Horrors-slash-Tim Burton garden.   I swear some days you could watch an okra pod grow in one afternoon – like zucchini, you’ve got to watch those little bastards because they will get woody and fibrous on you in a matter of days, if not hours.

Since moving to the mountains, my okra-growing days appear to be over (or at least limited), but that hasn’t stopped me from gathering up bushels of okra when I see them fresh at the Asian market or farmer’s market.  You can tell okra pods are fresh if they are uniformly green, and the tip end is firm (not bendable); also check for bruises and dark spots, which indicate they are past their prime.  The cut end of the pod should be firm; trim the end off of the stem end to clean, but do not pierce the pod.

After much trial and error, I can share the following suggestions for making your own pickled okra, and then wish you the best of luck. You can also buy perfectly good pickled okra at most grocery stores, but where’s the fun in that?

The actual canning part of making okra pickle is pretty straightforward.  Gently pack all of your ingredients into sterilized jars, and then pour over the pickling liquid and process as usual.  But okra are tricky little buggers, and it’s taken me years of practice to get them to behave.  They are susceptible to bruising and bursting, and are notorious floaters.  One friend claims that he has one jar explode in the canner every time.  On the other hand, another friend’s jars are routinely only half-full of pickling liquid after processing.  I’ve tried pricking the pods with a needle on the advice of grandmas (which does limit floaters, but tends to make the pickling liquid gluey and cloudy), hand-packing the pods in the same direction, or alternating directions.

My advice: place the flavoring ingredients in the bottom of your jar, first.  Gently pack okra one at a time in the jars, filling jars as full as you can (it doesn’t matter which direction, but I like them all lined up the same way because it looks pretty).  Put long pods in pint jars, and the baby ones in squat half pint jars.  Avoid squishing, bending, or bruising the pods.  Most recipes call for ½ inch of headspace AFTER removing air bubbles – I audaciously fill those suckers with pickle liquid right up to the rim.  Again, gently, poke around the pods with a chopstick to remove air bubbles, then recklessly fill the jars to the rim again.  Trust me:  there are inevitably air pockets around the okra no matter your chopstick skills, and the pods themselves are full of air.

Okay, here you go:

Crunchy & Spicy Okra Pickles (makes about 7 pints)

1)      Prepare canner; sterilize jars and lids

2)      In a large non-reactive (stainless steel) saucepan combine 6 cups water, 6 cups white vinegar, and 2/3 cup pickling salt; bring to a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer

3)      Meanwhile, to each pint jar (or halve ingredients for ½ pint jars) add:  1 large clove peeled garlic, two tiny bird chilies, ½ tsp. dill seeds

4)      Clean and trim about 6 lbs okra pods, sort by size (see, above)

5)      Gently pack okra into jars, leaving at least ½ inch head space between pods and the rim of the jar

6)      Ladle hot pickling liquid into jars to the rim.  Poke a chopstick around pods to eliminate air bubbles.  Pour more liquid in to cover okra, if needed.

7)      Wipe rim with a sterile cloth; center lid on jar, and screw band down to finger tip tight

8)      Place jars in canner, making sure they are completely covered with boiling water.  Resume boil, and process for 15 minutes (In SLC I add another 6 minutes to adjust for altitude).

9)      Turn off burner.  Remove canner lid.  Let sit for 5 minutes.

10)   Remove jars, cool at room temperature for 24 hours (do not tip those jars, no matter how tempting!).  After 24 hours, test seals, then tip jars over on their sides & lids to release air bubbles and check that pickling liquid is covering most of the pods.  Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.

Tennessee Redneck Dirty Okra Martini (makes 1)

Rub half of the rim of a martini glass with a section of picked okra, dip the damp rim into a saucer dusted with Cajun or Creole seasoning.   In a cocktail shaker combine:  3-4 cubes ice, 2 oz. gin, a dash of dry vermouth (1 tsp., or to taste), and a slosh of okra pickle juice (about 1-2 tsp).  Shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds.  Strain into the martini glass, and garnish with skewered okra pickles.

This is a bit more involved than my eponymous gal makes- hers just has gin, okra juice, and an okra pickle in it and it is sublimely and simply delightful just like that.

Fried Okra

Cut 2 lbs. okra pods into 1” wide rounds.  Combine 2/3 cup cornmeal and 2/3 cup white flour.  Add 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. black pepper, and ½ tsp. cayenne pepper and mix thoroughly.  Toss all of the okra into the dredge and mix to coat.  Heat a cast iron skillet over med-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil; heat over med-high until almost smoking.  Shake off excess dredge, and gently scatter a handful of okra into the hot grease.  Fry until golden, then remove to a paper-towel lined plate.  Keep on repeating until all your okra is done, adding more oil as needed, and turning down the heat if okra is getting too brown too fast.  Dust with additional sea salt while still steaming.  Eat right away.


Quick and Easy Irish Soda Bread


Photo from the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. These folks are serious.

Every year I make Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day –slathered with butter and served, of course, with corned beef and cabbage—and I think, “Geez, this stuff is so easy to make.  And super tasty.  I should make it more often!”  Then, I drink too many Irish Coffees, run out of buttermilk*, and forget all about this stroke of brilliance until I start seeing corned beef in the cases at Costco in late February.

As many of y’all know, I really only bake under duress (excepting the “3-Bs”: brownies, biscuits, and birthday cakes).  All that measuring, weighing on scales, perfect ratios.  Accounting for altitude.  Ugh.  There’s a wonderful bakery down the street from my house to which my very responsible children Sprite and Tim Collins can go as my representatives and pick up a few loaves for our family (and probably clear out half of their bread board sample offerings.  Sorry).  However, I’m not a fan of any of the “Irish” soda breads for sale in our fair city come March:  the ones I’ve tasted thus far are more sweet than savory.  Ick.  Cakey textured and loaded with sugar and raisins.  Double-ick.  And completely unlike anything I ate during my foray to Ireland, brief though that was (click here for a fantastic rant on what does and doesn’t qualify as traditional Irish soda bread.)

Soda breads—meaning breads leavened with bicarbonate of soda reacting to an acid, such as that found in buttermilk, rather than bread using yeast—are called “quick” breads for a reason.  They usually require little or no kneading, just the very basic incorporation of all ingredients, are not as sensitive about the higher ambient temperature needed to encourage adequate rising.  In fact, they generally don’t have a rising period, at all.  Foolproof even for the most inattentive baker (yes, that would be me).  SCORE.  There are lots of theories about why an “X” is cut in the top of the loaf before baking:  to let out the faerie spirits or as a symbol of Christianity, for instance.  Most bakers agree that the distinctive cut allows for more even baking of the dense bread.  I think its faerie exodus, FTW.

You can bake your soda bread in a cast-iron Dutch oven with great results –this is, after all, the traditional method—but a cookie sheet works perfectly well, too.  Personally, I enjoy any recipe that requires a good “thwacking” to determine doneness rather than guesswork or toothpicking.  And soda bread delivers on that count.  This bread dries out quickly, so eat it all within two days, as if that’s any hardship.

Mmmmm, where’s the butter?

Irish Soda Bread

1)       In a large bowl, measure out 3 cups of flour (I usually use 1 cup whole and 2 cups white cake or pastry flour, but you can increase your wheat flour up to 2 cups making this a very dense bread).

2)      To flour, add:
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Stir well to combine.

3)      To flour mixture cut in 2 Tbs. chilled butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

4)      Make a well in the center of the flour mix; add 1 ½  cups buttermilk.
Stir until just moist (don’t overbeat!)

5)      Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface; knead gently 5 or 6 times (just until the dough comes together). Pat dough into a ball, and then flatten gently to make an 8″ round.

6)      Lightly butter a cast iron Dutch oven or on a baking sheet. Place dough in center of baking vessel and cut a shallow “X” into the top with a sharp knife.

7)      Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. You know it’s done if you firmly tap the bottom of the loaf with a knuckle and it makes a sharp “thwack” sound.

8)      Cool on a wire rack. Serve in wedges with lots of butter. Yum.

*Yes, I’ve heard you can make your own buttermilk.

Have I ever done this?  No.

Fear and Loathing in the Lift Line

d ski close up(plus, DIY Cherry Heering and a gorgeous après ski cocktail, The Powderhound). 

For a while there, I was afraid of getting on the ski lift.  I don’t fear falling off the chair or have acrophobia (although there’s that puckerish stretch on the Summit chair at Solitude that gives me the heebs.  Every. Time.)  Nope, the thing that had me squirming was the inevitability of hearing some Really Bad News from a girlfriend.

It began innocuously enough.  Usually a casual “hey, do you have a half-day open this week to get some turns in?” invitation prompted our outing.  I’d meet up with my girlfriend and we’d make a warm up run or two.  Then it would happen:  I’d hear those dreaded words, “So… I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but…”

Two divorces.  One separation (with the ugly cheating-spouse details).  Another friend struggled with understanding her child’s recently-diagnosed learning disabilities.  A scarily inconclusive mammogram.  After a long decline with Alzheimer’s, a friend’s mother passed away.  My girlfriend Cherry Heering’s husband did some Very Naughty Things on the interwebs and was facing criminal prosecution (amazingly, she’s not one of the ones who got divorced.  You are a far more forgiving person than I, Cherry).

I started packing extra tissues, and my cheeks were chapped from tears collecting under the lower edge of my goggles and freezing on my face.  I wondered if therapists along the Wasatch had started prescribing the ski date as the perfect opportunity to practice talking about bad news.

And at the end of the day, after the cheating bastards were soundly trashed, the injustices of life questioned and pondered, and our friendship reaffirmed with fresh air, exercise, and swaying teary hugs shared at the parking lot, I’d go pick up my kids from school.  I’d remind them how awesome I think they are, and hug them until they squirmed.  Tell my husband I loved him.  And I’d make myself a stiff cocktail.  And count my blessings, high among them my amazing, strong, and resilient friends.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to spring.

A beautiful après ski cocktail:  THE POWDERHOUNDpowderhound

I made up this cocktail when I wasn’t in the mood for either a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, and knocking back two fingers of bourbon seemed a little too ironic (even for me) after a day spent skiing with a friend who’d been looking into rehab facilities for her husband.  It’s a gorgeous ruby color, and the sugar/cayenne rim adds a nice balance to the sweetness of the cherry heering and bite of the rye.

2-3 cherries (fresh, or from your home made cherry booze)

1 tsp. granulated sugar

1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

Two dashes Angostura bitters

1 oz. Cherry Heering*

1 ½ oz. rye whiskey

1 oz. club soda (optional)

In a shallow saucer, combine sugar and cayenne.  Rub the rim of a highball glass with a cherry to coat with juice.  Dip the glass rim into the pepper-sugar mixture.  Add bitters to the glass, and swirl to coat the interior of the glass.  In a cocktail shaker, add 3-4 cubes ice, the cherry heering, and whiskey.  Shake for 10 seconds or so, and then pour everything into the highball glass.  Garnish with cherries, and top with a little club soda, if desired.


* Cherry Heering is a (duh) cherry-based liqueur available at most liquor stores.  After my eponymous friend gave me a pint of her home made version –old cherry trees like hers are everywhere in our fair city—I’ve been making my own, too.  Here’s the super easy two ingredient recipe:

To a clean glass quart jar, add 2 cups washed & pitted sweet cherries.  Pour enough vodka to cover cherries (about 3 cups).  Let stand in a cool, dark place for at least 1 week and up to 1 year.