Cook in the Moment: Spiced Rice with Sweet Potatoes and Crispy Okra

Spiced Rice with Sweet Potatoes and Crispy Okra (c)2012 LaDomestique.com

I’ve spent a lot of time with okra during the past couple of weeks. At this point, we know each other pretty well. After stewing, roasting, and frying it I can say with full confidence my favorite way to cook okra is to slice the pods in half and sear them in hot olive oil till caramelized and crispy. I could eat a plate of crispy okra simply seasoned with sea salt as an appetizer, and to be honest it’s tempting to pluck the hot pods from the skillet and gobble them up before they reach the plate. Crispy okra lends a nice texture to rice dishes, and this earthy vegetable pairs well with fragrant jasmine rice. Reading the September issue of Food and Wine Magazine, I came across a genius recipe for Butternut Squash Basmati Rice in the article, “A Lesson in Indian Flavors.” Asha Gomez tosses diced squash into her rice, killing two birds with one stone by cooking the rice and steaming the squash in one pot. This was a revelation for me, a new way to make my rice dishes more interesting and flavorful. I used the technique with diced sweet potato for a creamier, richer, sweeter flavor to pair with the fluffy popcorn-scented rice. The Spiced Rice with Sweet Potatoes and Crispy Okra recipe was developed for The Louisiana Project, so I reached for Creole spices to toss in the pot, but you could use a teaspoon (or more) or your favorite Curry, Moroccan spice blend, or Za’atar seasoning.

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10 Ways Tuesday: Okra

Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe for Okra with Tomato, Lemon and Cilantro (c)2012 LaDomestique.com

I’ve got creative recipes for cooking with okra:

1.  Roasted Okra Mezze with Tomatoes, Bell Peppers, Olives, and Preserved Lemons

Mezze is to Middle Eastern cuisine what tapas is to Spanish cuisine- sexy little plates of appetizers with bold flavors to stimulate the appetite. In Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi shares a recipe for Okra with Tomato, Lemon and Cilantro that’s not just good – it’s entertaining good, it’s give me more good, it’s I love okra good. For the recipe, he stews onions, bell peppers, red chile, tomatoes, and cilantro with coriander seeds and sweet paprika. While the vegetables simmer away on the stove, whole okra pods are tossed with olive oil and salt, then roasted in the oven for a few minutes until tender. To serve, stir the okra into the stewed vegetables, along with black olives, preserved lemons, and mint. I served the dish as a mezze with flatbread, but Yotam suggests it would be fantastic atop steamed bulgur wheat or couscous. This recipe is guaranteed to change your mind about okra.

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Ingredient of the Week: Okra

Okra (c)2012 LaDomestique.com

“What kind of peppers are these?” the cashier at the grocery store asked me. “Those aren’t peppers, they’re okra,” I replied. I couldn’t fault her. Growing up in the south, fried okra was a big part of my diet, but I had never actually seen the whole pod, naked, without a crisp coating of cornmeal or cloaked in stewed tomatoes. It wasn’t until I left home and began buying my own groceries at farmer’s markets that I saw the fresh pods, shaped like a “lady’s fingers” (as they’re called in India), covered in a fine fuzz and colored green or purple. Okra is such a staple in southern cooking that it’s hard for me to fathom how you feel about it, though I’m willing to bet you either love it, hate it, or have no idea what it is.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sentiment, “Vegetables are never rightfully hated, merely misunderstood.” especially rings true for okra. It’s human nature to fear things we don’t understand, such as okra, which doesn’t look like any other vegetable, nor does the flesh cook like any other vegetable. Okra is not easy to love; it requires thoughtful preparation and responds well only to very specific cooking techniques. Learning to love okra is no more difficult than eggplant, beets, or kale; it’s a matter of focusing on the vegetable’s positive attributes rather than trying to make it behave like something it’s not. Okra will never be easygoing like a tomato, or refreshing as a cucumber. To really get to know okra is to discover a taste reminiscent of asparagus, with a delightful texture that is both crunchy and juicy at the same time.

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