Among vegetables, okra seems to be a category of its own. Like coriander, it divides people into two very distinct groups: the ones who love it and the ones who can’t stand the stuff. And like it is with coriander, once you’re in the latter group, crossing over to the other side seems almost impossible, no matter what you do with it. I’ve been intrigued by this effect ever since watching a Masterchef contestant preparing okras a few years ago. After hearing the contestant announce the main ingredient of her signature dish, one of the judges told the camera she did not look forward to tasting this one, because she disliked okra so much. Once tasted, sadly, the verdict was that the dish was every bit as awful as she had expected, even though the contestant stressed that it had turned out perfectly, just the way she liked it.
Okras, or ladies’ fingers, are edible green seed pods with a mild, pleasant, courgette-like flavour. The factor responsible for their disparate reception is a substance in their juice called mucilage, which thickens when in contact with water. This property makes okras the traditional binding agent in dishes like gumbo or Middle Eastern soups. It can also, however, make okras which are prepared to be eaten as a separate vegetable, turn out slimy and horrible.
Fortunately, there are several ways in which you can reduce the okras’ stickyness, so you can simply enjoy their crunchy texture and lovely flavour.
Things start with the quality of the okras you use. When you’re able to buy them in their summer season, you’ll get the best results with small, young and crisp-green pods – all in all, with pods which are just that bit better-looking than the ones I could get my hands on this week. With this in mind, I dried some of the seeds from this okra-batch. Hopefully, if our climate allows it, next year I’ll be cooking crisp, just-picked homegrown pods… If fresh okras aren’t available, though, some stores also sell them frozen.
The more the mucilage gets into contact with water, the more it thickens, which means you can prevent a lot of annoyance by limiting the contact with water. So, wash the okras only just before you’re ready to cook them and pat them dry before heating them. Limiting their surface area also helps, so consider cooking them whole or cut into larger chunks rather than small slices.
A third, important factor, is the way you cook them. Slow cooking at a moderate temperature with a lot of steam will result in soft veg with a lot of slime, whereas quick cooking at high heat will make them crisp and lovely. In this respect you can see Timothy Pakron sautéeing them whole in a very hot cast iron, and Yotam Ottolenghi quick-roasting them until crunchy. Another great way to prepare them is grilling them on an outdoor grill or in a griddle pan, which is where this recipe comes in. I charred the okras in a hot griddle pan, simply served them with romesco sauce, sea salt and lemon juice and they were perfect. Prepared like this, they make a crisp, full-flavoured veggie barbecue snack, while the addition of some pearl barley or other cooked grain turns them into a healthy and filling main.
Honesty bids me to say, though, that we’re still talking about okras here, which means that even within my family they were appreciated in opposite ways – varying from my husband, who put the okras aside after a few bites, to my daughter, who happily finished his portion for him, because she liked the okras so much. Up till now, I’ve only ever posted recipes me and the people around me are unanimously enthusiastic about, but with this peculiar vegetable curiosity makes me make an exception: which side are you on? Are you an okra enthusiast or a firm disliker? And if in the former group, what is your favourite way to prepare them?
Grilled okra with lemon and romesco sauce – serves 4
- 500 g okra, stem ends trimmed
- 1 tbsp. rapeseed oil
- 1 lemon, halved
- course sea salt, to sprinkle
- 1 portion of romesco sauce
Heat a griddle pan until really hot.
Mix the okras with the oil and tip part of them in the pan. Take care not to overcrowd the pan, to prevent steaming. Turning them occasionally, grill the okras for 8-10 minutes, until their green colour heightens and they’re covered with griddle marks. Repeat with the remaining okras.
Alternatively, you can grill the okras on a hot barbecue. In this case, turn them only once and grill both sides for 4-5 minutes.
Sprinkle the grilled okras with sea salt and drizzle with lemon juice to taste. Serve them hot or at room temperature, with a generous spoonful of romesco sauce.