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Anne Freeze: Pass the Hibiscus esculentus, please

 

Anne Freeze

 

The vegetable garden is starting to produce. It took longer than I expected, but this past weekend we harvested our first edamame (it was a little too early), and I have cut two beautiful pristine okra pods. I''m not sure if there were ready; they are the size I like but not as deeply green as the ones I bought from Phil Lancaster at the Farmers'' Market. Nonetheless, they are like an ugly baby, beautiful in their momma''s eyes. 

 

I once heard the musician, Olu Dara, wax eloquently on the subject of okra. I wasn''t familiar with Olu at the time, but I sat rapt, totally focused on his ability to tell a story. Olu was born Charles Jones III in 1941, in Natchez. I think he now lives in Chicago and travels the world with one of his two bands -- The Okra Orchestra or the Natchezsippi Dance Band. Right now I am listening to the song "Okra" from the album "In the Word: From Natchez to New York." A street vendor is shouting out his available produce to the ladies walking by It''s a great song and fitting for this time of year. 

 

A bit of history  

 

The scientific name for okra is Hibiscus esculentus. It is thought to have come from Africa (where it is known as nkruma) to the New World with the slave trade, first to South America (Brazil) and then making its way up to the southeastern United States in the 1700s. There is a legend that a group of 25 French women known as the "Cassette Girls" came to Mobile, Ala., in 1704 and brought some okra with them. They used it to make gumbo. The girls and their soup made their way to Louisiana. Or so legend goes. 

 

As for me, I have my two pods, plus some from Phil, in the fridge waiting for my decision on how to cook them. I fried some for the first time last week after spending a bit of time researching methods. There are choices to be made: buttermilk, egg, combo or no batter; cornmeal, flour or combo; and to slice, or not. I decided to use egg and buttermilk to glue the combo of flour and cornmeal to the sliced pods. As with anything I do involving dredging, I seasoned both the wet and the dry mixtures. I dropped the pods when the oil reached 350 degrees. They were really delicious, even two nights later reheated in the skillet and mixed with roasted corn cut from the cob.  

 

 

 

Okra round-up  

 

Not ready to drop the subject of cooking okra (I have high hopes for my garden), I asked around for others'' opinions. Francis Ellis (Mayhew Tomato Farm) told me her family always puts okra pods on top of a pot of butter beans or peas, for flavor. She says that everyone, but her, then eats the okra along with the other vegetable. Terry says his momma used to do the same thing when cooking peas. (For those new to this area, when saying "peas," it is automatically assumed you mean "purple hull peas." This caused me great confusion for my first year in Mississippi).  

 

Francis also noted that she does not do a wet dip when frying okra. She and M.C. prefer the taste of the okra and like it with a thin crunch. Sounds good to me.  

 

George Rose told me his neighbor cuts his okra lengthwise in thin strips, then proceeds to batter it and fry it. "Sort of like a French fry." How addicting to have a bowl of crunchy okra sticks to munch on, maybe with a creamy dip. I think it''s sure to be a hit at the next neighborhood party. If you have nice, fresh young okra, try frying them whole. I still remember, after nine years, the flavor of an appetizer of fried whole okra served alongside a coddled egg at Farm 255 in Athens, Ga. The idea was to dip the crispy okra into the rich, deep golden yellow of the barely-cooked egg yolk, served in its shell.  

 

My friend, Lili, taught me to simply sauté sliced okra in olive oil. It becomes crispy and retains all of its woodsy okra flavor. Simply season and eat. And I plan to also try okra fritters, as well as Bill Neal''s okra beignets. (E-mail me if you''d like this recipe.) 

 

Knowing that okra has an African heritage, I searched for a recipe to include that highlights these flavors. Below, you''ll find a dish that is Moroccan in flavor -- and uses quinoa. Quinoa is a grain, supposedly the world''s oldest-known grain, grown in the Andes Mountains. It is full of healthy fiber and amino acids and has a light fluffy texture. We''ll be having this for supper this week. 

 

Happy gardening to you, and don''t forget: if you don''t grow it yourself, head to the Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market and buy it. 

 

 

 

Moroccan spiced pilaf with quinoa and okra 

 

(Serves 4) 

 

 

 

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

 

One medium onion, diced fine 

 

Two medium carrots, diced 

 

Three cloves garlic, minced 

 

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes 

 

2 teaspoon ground ginger 

 

2 teaspoon ground cumin 

 

1 teaspoon ground coriander 

 

1 cup dried quinoa 

 

1/2 cup green or brown lentils 

 

3-4 cups vegetable broth or stock 

 

Freshly grated zest of one lemon 

 

4 ounces okra, washed, trimmed and cut into pieces 

 

1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped 

 

1/2 cup roughly chopped cashews or pistachios 

 

 

 

n Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a large covered casserole dish. 

 

n In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat; add onion, carrot, garlic, chili flakes, ginger, cumin and coriander. Stir until the vegetables start to soften. Add the quinoa and lentils and cook for a few minutes more. Add the broth, lemon zest and okra and return to the boil. Remove from heat. 

 

n Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish, cover, and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the liquid is mostly absorbed. Sprinkle with the cilantro and nuts before serving.

 

 

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