Sunday, October 21, 2007

What To Do With Okra?

My co-conspirator and I have been invited to an "Iron Chef"-type challenge where everyone brings a dish featuring a particular ingredient; this time it happens to be okra. I've never really worked with the vegetable before, and the preparations I'm familiar with are limited to gumbo and fried okra. My co-conspirator, being the reasonable person that she is, immediately vetoed the gumbo idea on the grounds that "every else is going to do gumbo". I don't know that I necessarily believe that; real gumbo is a fairly challenging dish. But even if we were to execute an excellent gumbo we'd still run the risk of being lumped into the same category as a bunch of soupy, gumbo-ish preparations. As for fried okra it has a number of strikes against it, not the least of which is that its been done to death. I also have doubts about the ability of the dish to hold well. Since we're going to be making the dish in our own kitchen and transporting it elsewhere the ability to hold well is definitely a must. With the traditional preparations eliminated for one reason or another I needed to strike out into the unknown.

According to this article at okra is a member of the same family as hibiscus and cotton. This immediately got me to thinking about using some other part of the plant besides the pod, since hibiscus flowers can be used to make a really good iced tea. It didn't take me long to find out that the plant is woody, similar to a grape vine or a maple seedling, and showing little promise as a whole. The stems don't look edible, and neither do the leaves, so I decided not to pursue either of those components further. The flowers, on the other hand, are pretty and do look a lot like hibiscus, raising the possibility that I could use okra flowers to good effect. According to The Lost Crops of Africa the flowers are edible, but the whole discussion turned out to be moot as I was unable to find any place to purchase them. Absent any other edible parts of the plant I was stuck using the pods, as predictable as that might be.

So what did I have to work with? Per the USDA okra is mostly fiber and water, with a little bit of protein and a little bit of carbohydrate. The protein is primarily locked up in the seeds, making it difficult to get at via normal cooking methods. What's left is a pod that exudes a sticky, slimy substance (appealingly called "okra mucilage") when cut. Okra mucilage has good thickening properties, which is a big reason why okra is often used in soups and stews, but outside that context its texture can be something of a negative. Since we had already decided against doing a soup/stew I needed to find a way to prepare the okra pod that minimizes the sliminess while highlighting the taste and texture of the pod itself.

The raw pod has a taste and texture that's a close match to haricots verts, so it seemed to be a good idea to treat the pods in a similar fashion. My first instinct was to try a light stir-fry in the hopes that this would allow the okra to express itself without getting unduly slimy. I split, seeded, and julienned some pods and gave them a quick once-over in my cheap-ass Ikea wok, but the result was pretty bad. The strips of pod were soggy and unappealing; I suspect that even brief stir-frying causes enough breakdown of the plant structure to release mucilage, sort of like okra Ebola. In an effort to minimize this effect I tried lightly coating the strips with flour or corn starch before stir-frying. Those turned out a little better, but still got limp and soggy rather quickly. I ever went so far as to coat the strips in tempura batter; this effectively countered the sogginess/limpness in the short run, but the tempura got in the way of the vegetable. It was essentially fried okra, the only difference being I'd substituted tempura batter for the traditional cornmeal. I came to the conclusion that there was no love to be had in the stir-fry department.

Next I tried blanching the okra on the grounds that green beans are often given that treatment. I put the okra strips in boiling water for 30 seconds and then transferred them to ice water. This worked very well; the strips turned a bright, appealing green and retained a bit of crunch, but lost their raw edge. Things went south after I drained them though; though they retained their crisp texture they began to exude mucilage as well. Any attempt to work with them in that condition would cause the resulting dish to have and undesirable texture and consistency. At that point I thought I was halfway to my goal: the okra was pleasant and holding up well, I just needed some way to cut the mucilage.

This turned out to be easier said than done. I tried water and white vinegar, neither of which had the slightest effect. Okra mucilage is a sugar polymer, similar in some respects to pectin, so I tried introducing some pectinase that I had left over from making prickly-pear mead. This, as well, had no discernible effect. I even asked an acquaintance with a chemistry background about the problem; ey said that I was SOL as far as breaking down okra mucilage was concerned. Eventually I found out that you can dissolve okra mucilage using sodium borohydride, the only problem being that sodium borohydride is toxic and corrosive and generally not suitable for human consumption. At that point I was at a loss; there didn't seem to be a good way to present okra on its own without running into the "mucilage problem".

Then my co-conspirator suggested that we might dodge the whole issue by incorporating the okra into a product that was naturally thick to begin with. That made a whole lot of sense; if the desired texture of the final product was thicker than that of the mucilage then the inclusion of okra in the recipe wouldn't cause problems. Suitable recipes immediately began to suggest themselves:

  • Savory pudding
  • Jook/congee
  • Cornbread
That's where things stand now. It remains to be seen whether any of the above will work in practice.

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