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#1101 - Okra, Kale, and Crowder Peas
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September 11, 2012 #1101 Okra, Kale, and Crowder Peas
Every week when I go to the market I enjoy just walking up and down the aisles checking out everything that's available. At this time of year, it's wonderful to see how many choices we have. Now, some of those choices are pretty obvious: corn, tomatoes, melons and peaches. But if you look closely you can spot some less likely items that still deserve your attention. And we're thinking of okra, kale and crowder peas.
Okra is a mainstay of Southern cooking, but it's one of those peculiar vegetables that people either love or hate. This is because of the sticky sap that you find inside the okra pod: some people refer to it as slime, it's technical name is mucilage. When shopping, choose okra that is firm, and bright green. Avoid pods that are soft and squishy, or turning black.
Okra is usually cut into rounds, or sliced lengthwise, but it can be cooked whole. The damper the cooking environment, the more the slime will ooze out. In a stew or gumbo this is desirable since it will thicken the sauce. On its own, it is undesirable.
A good solution to cooking okra on its own is to stir fry, using a minimum of oil. The mucilage will evaporate, leaving the tasty flesh of the pods behind. Roasting the round okra slices works well too. One recipe I encountered was essentially an okra tempura, which involved coating okra rounds in a thin batter and then frying them. However you cook it, okra is at its best when it is still crisp and crunchy, or slightly softened. Overcooking doesn't serve this vegetable well at all.
Kale has become a very popular leafy green lately. It's a member of the cabbage family (the Dutch word for cabbage gave us both kale and cole slaw) and it is extremely nutritious. It is one of the most ubiquitous vegetables out there: featured in European, African and Asian cooking.
Kale can be just a little tough, or chewy, so it is usually chopped up if eaten raw. But it really shines in soups, which explains the hundreds of kale soup recipes you can find. One of its strongest affinities is with pork products. It's right at home with bacon, sausage, shredded pork or ham. So use these ingredients in a soup, or plan to have kale as a side dish.
Cooking kale is often a matter of simmering the chopped up leaves. You can sauté kale with a little broth, which will cook down, and then season it with vinegar. Kale blanches easily and can be used much in the same way as spinach. A very simple recipe is to cut up some kale, place it in a plastic bag with some olive oil, shake it, put it on a cookie sheet, then bake it in a hot oven for just a couple of minutes. It comes out nicely crispy, and full of flavor.
If your market is lucky enough to have a pea vendor, you probably have run into crowder peas. These spotty brown peas with their less than round shape are very closely related to black eyed peas. Their flavor is robust and earthy, and their texture is very firm and nicely chewy. Crowder peas are not terribly tender, so you need to soak them over night. As countless Southern recipes tell us, the crowder pea marries well with pork flavors. When cooked they add a dark, flavorful juice to the pot. Unlike fresh green peas, which cook in the blink of an eye, crowder peas do require a good 30-45 minutes simmering, so think slow when working with them.
A natural for soups and stews, crowder peas can be used in salads if you cook them first, then cool them down a bit.
Of course the real message of this show about okra, kale and crowder peas is that you can use all three ingredients to make a nice stew that is perfect for the first cool days of autumn. Mix them up with some onions, peppers, garlic, a ham hock and some cut up chicken, with plenty of broth. That's good down home eating.