Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Okra Without the Slime




Inspired in part by Shuna of Eggbeater, I have been cooking okra since it started appearing at the Farmers' Market in Berkeley. The Washington Post Food Blog also had an okra post recently.

Okra's Oozing
Okra is one of those "binary foods" where people seem to hate it or love it (also in this family are mushrooms, seaweed, and tofu). The hate is usually because of the gooey slime that coats the okra, but it doesn't have to be that way.

My experience to date is that okra becomes slimy when cooked in a watery environment---in a stew or a steamer basket, for example. Stir-frying or sauteing in hot oil, in contrast, keeps the slime within the okra pieces, or perhaps causes the moisture in the mucilage to evaporate, thus improving the pods' texture.

Before I get to the cooking methods, a little bit about okra and its slime. Okra is in the mallow family (Malvaceae), a group of plants that have exude a gelatinous substance when sliced. This substance is called mucilage. McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology Online
has this in their free preview of the mucilage entry:

Mucilages are not pathological products but are formed in normal plant growth within the plant by mucilage-secreting hairs, sacs, and canals, but they are not found on the surface as exudates as a result of bacterial or fungal action after mechanical injury, as are gums. Mucilages occur in nearly all classes of plants in various parts of the plant, usually in relatively small percentages, and are not infrequently associated with other substances, such as tannins. The most common sources are the root, bark, and seed, but they are also found in the flower, leaf, and cell wall. Any biological functions within the plant are unknown, but they may be considered to aid in water storage, decrease diffusion in aquatic plants, aid in seed dispersal and germination, and act as a membrane thickener and food reserve.
More about mucilage here.


Cooking Okra
Certain cooking techniques will prevent your okra dish from being overly slimy. Stir frying is one of the techniques. The cuisine of India has many methods of okra preparation, and I tried three from my Indian cookbook library, and also tried an improvised stir-fry based on advice from a farmer at the Berkeley Saturday market.

Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking contains a recipe for whole okra braised with tomatoes, onions and spices. This recipe resulted in mostly unslimy okra, but was very messy because trimmed, whole okra pods are fried in a shallow pool of oil in a frying pan until tender, thus leading to many splatters across the side of the kitchen that houses my stove.

Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness has two okra recipes. The first (Okra in a Spicy Tomato-Onion Sauce) started off in a bad way. The recipe requires that you slice the okra into rounds, and as I did so, slime was pouring out of the cuts. But cooking the okra in a mixture of sauteed onions and spices prevented that slime from ruining the dish for me. My adaptation of the recipe is listed below.

The second Saran/Lyness recipe (Crispy Okra with Spices) used whole okra, which were coated in spices and sauteed in oil. It was very easy to cook, but eating was another matter. Some of the larger okra pods were exceptionally slimy, and quite unpleasant to chew. I think that perhaps my okra pods were too large for this treatment, and that 3-4 cm long pods would be preferable.

My most recent attempt was a simple stir fry. I prepared some vegetables: okra in 1/2" rounds, onions in slices, long beans in 1" lengths, and red bell pepper in thin rectangles (1" by 1/4"). I combined minced garlic, minced green chile, and minced lemongrass in another bowl. Heat some oil in a wok or large skillet. When hot, toss in the garlic, chile, and lemongrass. Stir for 30 seconds, then add the vegetables. Stir fry until the vegetables are about one minute from being done to your liking. Add some soy sauce, water and perhaps a mixture of water and cornstarch (to thicken the sauce), saute for a minute, and then serve. The okra I made using this approach had a pleasant and non-slimy texture, but the sauce was one-dimensional. Perhaps next time I'll try using a curry paste as the flavor base.





Okra in a Spicy Tomato-Onion Sauce
Adapted from Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness.

Ingredients
1/3 cup oil
1 t. cumin seeds
1 medium onion, halved, then sliced thinly
1 T. ground coriander seeds
1 t. ground cumin seeds
1/2 t. turmeric powder
1/4 t. ground red chile (or cayenne pepper)
1 pound okra, trimmed, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 T. minced or grated ginger root
1 t. salt
2 tomatoes, diced medium size
1 fresh hot green chile, minced
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. chopped cilantro

(Unit conversion page)

Method
Have all of the prepared ingredients ready next to the stove.

Heat the oil and cumin in a large wok or skillet over medium heat. Cook the mixture, stirring frequently until the cumin seeds are fragrant (1-2 minutes after oil is hot).

Add the onion, increase the heat to medium high, and saute for a few minutes, until the onions are wilted.

Reduce the heat to medium then add the ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric and ground chile. Stir for 30 seconds. Add the okra, and stir to coat the okra with spices. Cover the pan, and cook for 5-10 minutes or so, stirring every few minutes, until the okra starts to brown lightly. Adjustment of the heat might be needed here to find the point that allows the okra to brown without burning the spices.

Stir the mixture. Add the ginger, stir, and cook for 30 seconds, then pour in the tomatoes, salt and chopped green chile. Stir well. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 5 more minutes.

Remove the cover, increase the heat to high, and cook, stirring often, until the okra is tender and the sauce has been slightly reduced (about 5 minutes). Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro, check for salt, and serve.






Indexed under Ingredients, India
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking : Vegetarian

25 comments:

Manisha said...

Marc, okra does not have to go all slimy on you. The trick is to wash it and dry each pod completely before you chop it. The knife and cutting board must also be dry. If slime collects on the knife, keep wiping it dry as you chop. Covering the pan while cooking also makes it ooze so that's another thing to avoid. Okra has always been a favorite veggie in our home and this was the first thing I learned from my mother. We add okra to sambar, kadhi and so on without it becoming slimy, too. The okra is added to these only when they are boiling so it cooks quickly and does not have a chance to exude that slimy stuff. HTH!

Anonymous said...

I am an "okra hater" but this picture is positively gorgeous! It makes me want to go out and buy some fresh Okra.

Diane said...

I cook okra the Indian way and can attest to manisha's recommendations. It has to be totally totally dry. And keep wiping the knife.

I bought some purple okra at the farmer's market this week and am going to try okra raita.

g said...

Hi, Here's a super simple no-slime recipe. Clean and completely dry each okra pod. Then cut it length wise into 2 (if the okra is quite plump then cut 4 times). Options here: shallow fry these slender okra lengths in oil till cripy; or bake in the oven till same.

And then sprinkle ANY powder known to man on them. You can do Indian spices or mexican or italian or cajun.......improvise and top off with some lime juice.

g said...

Hi, Here's a super simple no-slime recipe. Clean and completely dry each okra pod. Then cut it length wise into 2 (if the okra is quite plump then cut 4 times). Options here: shallow fry these slender okra lengths in oil till cripy; or bake in the oven till same.

And then sprinkle ANY powder known to man on them. You can do Indian spices or mexican or italian or cajun.......improvise and top off with some lime juice.

Pepper said...

I happen to love that quality of okra that most people hate. To me, it makes the inside of your mouth feel more than usual like the inside of your mouth. I like it in pretty much any preparation though.

Marc said...

manisha, diane, and gunjan --- thanks for your suggestions. I think I might be buying some okra this weekend to try them out...

pepper --- I imagine you're not alone. I read somewhere (can't remember where) that some cultures savor the slime of okra.

Anonymous said...

okra rocks!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Couldn't resist okra suggestion additions.

1. Fresh and frozen okras are two different ball games. Frozen okra: just hope all the water doesn't make it more slimy. Allow to evaporate on heat, and add moisture absorbing masalas, or even besan (gram flour).

2. Fresh okra: Avoid covering the pan, as manisha suggests. As important, 1. avoid adding salt until all the slime has been absorbed. 2. Avoid stirring it up overmuch in the initial minutes. High-ish heat without salt and moisture does the trick, and non-stick cooking reduces the need to shallow fry: a few tablespoons of oil, high heat for a few minutes till you see the slimy strands disappearing, and then salt it/ add to your masalas and stuff on lower heat. Covering it at this stage will yield some slime, but that can be undone after further cooking and leaving it uncovered at the end..

Suvir Saran said...

marc,
email me at chef@suvir.com and I can send you a third recipe for okra.
which is totally slime free.
Okra does not get slimy if you cut it when dry and if you pick tender small pieces.
The larger big pieces are both slimy and tough and also not tasty to eat.
Would be happy to share the Crispy Okra Salad recipe that keeps my restaurant in NYC, Devi in business.
Hope you are enjoying your okra experiments and that all the helpful tips you have recieved here have helped you find new and exciting recipes already.

Suvir Saran
www.indianhomecooking.com
www.devinyc.com

Sonja Heinze Coryat said...

Hi: I've only used okra from a can, and it's not slimy at all because the manufacturer I wrote to asking him why said that when you cook it a long time, the slime turns to brine. The process they use is pressure cooking it after it's canned. I always used caned okra to make calaloo, a Trinidadian dish which you mix with caned spinach, an onion, tomato sauce, garlic, and cook for 2 hours with a ham hock. Everybody actually likes it. I used to live in northern CA and recently moved to Arkansas and see that people down here like fried okra, which you cover with a cornmeal batter and fry in oil. (They like everything deep-fried down here.) Apparently the batter keeps the slime from oozing around. Some woman told me long ago that all you have to do when you cook fresh okra is add a Tbsp of vinegar to the contents of the pot and the slime will quickly vanish. Anyway, please visit my blog about food and the environment, which I started two months ago. Cheers! www.sonjarants.blogspot.com

William said...

The best way to cook okra without a lot of slime, is just by cutting the two ends and cooking it whole, then if you want smaller pieces just cut them to size.

Anonymous said...

I was at my Turkish friend's house and she made okra stew. It's essentially tomato sauce, spices, small bits of stew meat and mini okra. The mini okra can be purchased frozen from middle eastern stores. Her stew was not slimy at all! She said, you must boil the okra with lemon juice - even up to or over 1 cup! I am assuming you put some water too for boiling, then drain it, then add it to your stew. I am trying it today.

Laura said...

I really appreciate the information and will try some of these methods. I need to know one thing about the Okra size. Can I still cook a 4 inch Okra? Iam a reluctant gardner, who just moved from Las Vegas to the South. I am learning something new everyday.
Laura

Debbie said...

I had okra for the first time recently in a Vietnamese soup with pineapple and fresh tomatoes. Both my husband and I liked it. I have no idea what was in the broth and couldn't find anything like it on the internet, but thought I'd try it in a soup myself. So I just added it in the last 5 minutes to a vegetable soup I made. It was good! Not slimy at all and had a nice crunch.

Katie said...

i was interested to know is it wrong to let them grow until they are 6 or 7 inches in length? they seemed exceptionally tough even though i chopped and steamed them for 20 minutes, then added into my gumbo for another 20 minutes. i thought surely that would be enough time to soften them up, but they were still very tough!

Tuishimi said...

Thanks for these ideas! We got okra in our farmers market basket today... I've tried cooking it before and really couldn't take the slime. But I will try again, with some spicy tomato-y sauce and cut using the methods specified here.

Wish me luck! :)

Anonymous said...

I am trying to find purple okra seed. This is a rare okra and the seed are very hard to find. If you know where I can find some please email me at sherrellw@hotmail.com.

Marc said...

Most recent anonymous: try looking in Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds' catalog. They sell more than 25 varieties of okra seeds. Perhaps one or more of them will be what you are looking for. If they don't have it, they might be able to point you to a source.

SK said...

Tender okra is usually shorter than 4-5 inches. Smaller okra are generally more tender. A reliable way to judge tenderness is the try to snap the tip off with your finger. If it breaks off readily with a crisp snap, it's tender. The tips of tough okra won't break off easily and could just fray due to the thicker fibers. You can also feel the difference in the body of the okra. The tender okra will feel more crisp and delicate while the tough ones are thicker and harder. Tough okra is a double downer. Not only is it fibrous to chew, the seeds can be hard.

Anonymous said...

Retta said...
My mother taught me to wash, cut okra in 1/2" lengths and roll in cornmeal. My mother was from the U.S. midwest, that's where she learned it. I heat olive oil, place okra in, saute a few minutes and add herb & garlic seasonging & salt. Use as a side dish.

Anonymous said...

I just tried some of the recommendations for non-slimy okra. I washed and dried up to 3 1/2 to 4 inch okra then sliced it on a dry plate. Keep it dry and wipe the knife if it gets a little slimy. Have boiling water on with 1 tblsp to 2 tblsp vinegar in the boiling water. Cook okra in water until tender. It turned out perfectly non-slimy!!!! I added it to a cold salad, but you could put it in with any hot dish also.

John Wilshire said...

I am interested in freezing okra that has been prepared for frying. Already breaded (cornmeal) and ready to fry from the freezer. Is there a recepie that allows this without blanching or one that will not have slimy effect so I can cout vaccum pack and freeze easier. What if I have a lot of Okra to do? I know that there has to be some easy way. Otherwise,how would industrialized packing work.

Thank you all
John Wilshire
wilshirej@gmail.com

Paul said...

I'm from S. Louisiana. Simple solution to the slime. 1 cap of vinegar in the pot before you boil fresh okra and slime is no problem. I personally don't mind the slime but this will work.

Fahad Khan said...

Over here in India,Okra is the favorite vegetable of many!Thank you for all these fantastic tips!:-) I will be trying your recipe too!