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November 10, 2015 - Radio Kitchen - Okra

A few weeks ago I was having dinner at the Ambassador Dining Room, Baltimore's premier Indian restaurant.  Our meal started out with two vegetable appetizers, including a fabulous squash dish that featured okra.  It was wonderful, and it made me wonder, why doesn't everybody love okra?

The okra, which comes from tropical forests, is the edible seed pod of a plant that is not dissimilar from the hibiscus.  The pod is roughly pentagonal in cross-section, and contains many seeds.  Raw, it also contains the famous "goo" or "slime," which is at the heart of the problem.

Cooking the okra pod whole minimizes the sap, and that's fine for some people.   But a lot of recipes call for the okra to be sliced into disks, and let the "goo" fall where it may.

To be fair, the flavor of okra  is very pleasant, not the least bit offensive.  And the crunchy texture is quite welcome, for instance in stews or gumbos, where most of the other ingredients are soft.

And to be fair once more, the "goo," or mucilaginous sap, is an excellent thickening agent.  Add cut up raw okra to a soup or stew, stir it in, and in moments the broth will thicken right up.  If you want to take advantage of the crisp texture of okra, add it fairly late into a recipe so it stays crunchy.

So many okra recipes seem to have a distinct Southern Accent, and that is a tribute to Dixie's understanding and appreciation for okra.  In surfing through the web I saw "Fried Pecan Okra," "Pickled Okra,"  "Okra Creole," cheese filled "Okra Rellenos," and "Shrimp and Okra Hush Puppies"  (oh, my goodness!).

A few weeks ago I picked up some okra at the market and took it home to play with.  Going through my fridge I found onion, green peppers, tomatoes, chicken, and spicy Italian sausage.  Up in the cupboard, I had a big old bag of bulgur wheat and some chicken broth.  The recipe more or less wrote itself. 

Cook the bulgur wheat in the chicken broth; sauté the onions and peppers; cut up the chicken and sausage; chop up the tomatoes; snag a few seasonings like garlic powder, cumin, cayenne, black pepper, and oregano. 

Throw all of that stuff into one big pot, and enough broth to cover it all, and when it is really simmering away, cut up the okra and toss it in.  Of course I imagine I kept reaching for this and that as the dish cooked... I'm particularly fond of using Balsamic vinegar for something like this.  Any way, it turned out very well, and of course, it was even better the second night.

The rest of the okra went into a simple shrimp and rice dish a few nights later, and it was great.  So go out and try it, and don't be the least bit put off.  Okra goo is your friend.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.