Okra, a Summer Staple With So Much to Share

Approaching okra creatively will broaden the complexity and flavors of your cooking. A one-pan spiced shrimp dinner proves it.

By Yewande Komolafe

Okra is a kind of culinary education bound in sturdy, ridged pods. When prepared with the right techniques, okra can take on crispy, silky and stretchy textures few ingredients can replicate. Learning how to approach okra in creative ways — taking cues from its uses in the cuisines of Africa, Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East — can broaden the complexity and flavors of your cooking.

In North America, fresh okra is in season throughout the spring and early summer. When ripe, its skin shines bright green (but can even range from fuchsia to deep magenta) and the seed-filled pods feel plump and firm. Fresh okra gives off a subtle grassy scent, and is best used within a day or two of purchase, as the pods can turn woodsy and fibrous quickly.

The best way to approach this wonderful summer ingredient is to explore the techniques that underscore its best qualities. When dredged in cornmeal or dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried, okra develops a crunchy shell that contrasts its trademark juicy interior. Quick high-heat roasting, searing or grilling achieves the crispness of a deep-fry while charring the okra’s skin, which deepens its earthy flavor.

Simmering okra for succotash, a dish that celebrates peak-summer produce, brings chunky slices to full tenderness. In the North Indian bhindi ki sabzi, another one-pan blend, okra rounds are generously spiced and seared crisp. Grated or minced okra simmered in soups and stews lends body and thickness to the broth. In Nigeria, this preparation is known as “draw soup” because it exemplifies the expression “long and drawn out.” Okra’s unique viscosity allows you to quite literally stretch your soup from the bowl as it is spooned.

Finding pairings for okra is hardly a challenge. Tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, chiles and any other summer vegetables with a hint of acidity or a subtle sweetness effortlessly match okra’s mildness.

Beyond produce, shrimp and okra are especially wonderful together, as they balance each other’s best qualities. In lighter soups, okra, with its slightly bitter seeds, complements sweet and saline shrimp. In stews, they can be textural opposites: The shrimp stubbornly hold their shape while the okra’s absorbent skin breaks down, making it part of the broth.

In this quick one-pan meal, you’ll need — and will master — only a single technique: the perfect sear. With a hot, oiled skillet, okra takes on a lovely toasted edge. The shrimp pick up the sazón sprinkled on top, and both are cooked just long enough to end up tender. Finished with chopped cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, the dish is sure to become a new summer classic.

To enjoy okra beyond its prime season, pickle it and enhance its gentle flavor in the process. Or dry slices or whole pods in an oven or dehydrator for a crispy snack that can be topped with a variety of salty seasonings. Both of these preparations, when stored properly, allow you to extend the life of okra until next year’s crop is ready.

Recipe: Sazón-Spiced Shrimp and Okra

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