Applaud the Pod: Okra, okra, okra!
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.
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.