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.

Oh! You Sexy Beets Dirty Martini – a hot & pink cocktail

SexyBeetsDirtyMartini

Why I don’t dine out on Valentine’s Day, and you shouldn’t either.

I avoid dining out on Valentine’s Day.   With few exceptions, restaurants are packed with starry-eyed lovers ordering off of prix fixe menus with cloyingly sweet and often watery cocktail offerings, cheap champagne and the Cosmopolitan being the most egregious of these, in my book.  The servers and kitchen are overtaxed trying to run a fast turn-over service to a bunch of people who are too busy groping each other under the tablecloth to really enjoy the meal.

My  girlfriends Sangiovese and Saketini argue that Valentine’s Day could be considered the epitome of the asshat guy holiday – he can be a complete douche to his girlfriend/wife/partner all year, but shell out some bucks for awful milk chocolates and dinner out and he’s –at least temporarily- redeemed himself.  Why can’t a guy just be nice, generous and considerate all the time?  I’m convinced, gals.  You’ve got my vote.

My husband, The Macallan, and I usually go out the weekend before or after, preferably on a Sunday night, and enjoy a leisurely meal accompanied by an attentive server and an excellent wine list.  On V Day itself, I prepare a simple dinner at home, and enjoy a sassy hot pink dirty martini while I’m making it.  The Macallan can totally grope me after I’ve had one (or two) of these and the kids have been excused from the table.

Oh! You Sexy Beets Dirty Martini

If you haven’t canned up your own Sexy Beets with Cipollini onions (below), use very good quality spicy artisanal beets from your Farmer’s Market, or do a quick pickle the day before with a beet or two boiled in the spicy brine.  Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use (at least overnight and up to 3 weeks).  I like the icy film on the top of the martini created by the shaking method, but it’s very good stirred, as well.

In a cocktail shaker with a few cubes of ice add:

2 oz. gin

¼ oz. dry vermouth

¼ oz. spicy beet pickling juice

Shake, then strain into a martini glass.  Garnish with skewered segment of beet and a pickled cipollini onion.

 

Nice Cans, Gal!:  Pickled Sexy Beets & Cipollini Onions

My friend Peppermint Schnapps says beets taste like ass.  Since I’m not going to ask her whose ass she’s been sampling, I can only guess that the only beets she’s tasting are the nasty gluey ones from the grocery shelf cans, or unseasoned over-roasted monsters.

These sassy pickled beets, paired with adorable cipollini onions, are your best bet to win over the most fervent beet-haters.  Lovely in an arugula salad with a bit of goat cheese and roasted walnuts, or served on their own for a stunning relish tray.  I love them in place of olives for a hot pink dirty martini; add a splash of the spicy brine in place of olive juice and skewer a beet wedge and an onion for your garnish.  Fabulous.

Sexy Beets & Cipollini Onions (makes approximately 6 pints)

1 Tbs. dill seed

1 Tbs. black peppercorns

½ cup fresh dill weed (approx.)

2 ½ cups white vinegar

1 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar

8 cups prepared beets (boiled until tender, with skins removed, stemmed)

2 cups prepared cipollini onions (parboiled & plunged in cold water so tough outer skins peel off easily)

1)      Prepare canner, jars & lids.

2)      For each pint jar (cut amount in half, if using ½ pint jars) add:  1 sprig dill weed, ½ tsp. dill seeds, ½ tsp. black peppercorns

3)      Combine vinegar, water, and sugar in a large stainless steel saucepan.  Boil until sugar is dissolved.  Add beets and onions and return to a boil.

4)      Divide beets and onions equally amongst the prepared jars, leaving a generous ½ “ head space at the top of jars.  Ladle hot pickling liquid over the beets maintaining a ½” head space.  Poke a chop stick around the beets to remove air bubbles and add more liquid if needed.

5)      Wipe rims, center lids, screw bands on until fingertip tights.

6)      Process covered in a boiling water bath for 30 minutes (adjust for altitude = SLC add 10 minutes)

7)      Remove canner lid and turn off heat.  Let sit 5 minutes.

8)      Remove jars, cool at room temperature, and store.