From crispy fried appetizers to hearty stews, this versatile vegetable stars in many of the South’s signature recipes.
By Jessica Farthing
If you have been lucky enough to dine at a true Southern restaurant, it’s likely that you have encountered breaded disks of sliced green okra. Enjoying this fried Southern staple is a prerequisite to truly understanding the region’s cuisine, as okra permeates many of the traditional dishes. Fried, stewed, pickled, roasted or simply eaten raw, the ingredient is as intertwined in favorite local recipes as black-eyed peas or pecans.
Okra’s long history in the South is thanks in part to the ease of growing the vegetable, which made the crop a popular choice for production. It grows in a multitude of soil types and yields beautiful hibiscus-like flowers that stay open during the day and close at night. Okra thrives in warm climates, and is harvested well into October throughout most of the Southern states.
Southern-born chef Virginia Willis is the author of “Okra: A Savor the South Cookbook” from the popular series produced by the University of North Carolina Press. During her research, she followed the path of okra as it moved from its African origins to other parts of the world. “One of the things I found fascinating was that every culture that has okra—whether it is Greek, Brazilian, Indian or the Southern United States—fries it,” Willis says. “And everyone cooks it with tomatoes. Of course, both of these minimize the ‘slime’ factor.”
Whether or not the mucilaginous quality of okra should be labeled as a pro or a con is often a source of debate. More than one Southern-born child has developed an aversion to okra due to the sliminess of the vegetable, but many find it appealing. “One thing I like about okra is its gelatinous qualities,” says Christopher Delissio, chef de cuisine at Southern Tide. “It’s one of the few vegetables … that I know of that can be used to thicken stews and sauces.”
Gumbo is a great example of a dish that benefits from this aspect of okra. This stew, developed in Louisiana, typically combines herbs and spices, peppers, sausage and seafood or other meat with okra as the main component to flavor and thicken the sauce. It is so important to the dish that the name “gumbo” is actually taken from the West African word for okra, “kimgombo.”
However, for those who aren’t fond of the sticky element, it can be minimized by the type of cooking method. Adding an acid to a dish helps reduce it, while searing or frying stop the liquid output. One thing is certain, okra’s versatile nature provides plenty of options when it comes to preparation.
Delissio serves okra with a little bit of a twist: pickled, then fried. “It’s a cool contrast—frying anything that is pickled—because you get the tartness with the salty, savory flavor of frying an item.” This method is an integral part of his recipe for Southern shrimp and grits, a medley of shrimp, sausage, stewed fresh okra, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and spices over creamy cheese grits.
Some of the okra at the resort is sourced from local purveyor Canewater Farm. This farm-to-table approach yields crisp, fresh green okra for use at Southern Tide. With okra, fresher is better, as the pods get woody and fibrous the longer they are on the plant and the longer they sit waiting to be prepared. With the prevalence of home gardens in the South, it often makes it to the table the same day that it’s picked. Willis remembers her grandmother preparing okra when she was a child. “We would spend summers in Georgia mostly,” she says. “My grandmother would fry okra in her cast-iron skillet. She would put down newspaper and a brown paper bag with towels on top, and I remember her frying it and scooping it onto that paper landing pad. My sister and I would eat it as fast as she could make it. Whenever you have ingredients harvested that day, it tastes delicious.”
Shrimp and Grits
Okra is a featured ingredient in this recipe from Christopher Delissio, chef de cuisine at Southern Tide.
16 fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
Blackening spice, as needed
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup yellow onion, julienned
1/2 cup red bell pepper, julienned
1/2 cup green bell pepper, julienned
1 cup fresh okra, sliced
1 cup andouille sausage, diced
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup tomato saffron broth
1/2 cup tomato juice
5 pickled okra, halved
2 cups of prepared cheese grits
Season shrimp with blackening spice. In a large pan, sear the shrimp with half of the butter. Add onions, peppers, fresh okra, sausage and garlic. Sauté briefly, then deglaze the pan with the white wine. Add the tomato broth and tomato juice and gently simmer to reduce and thicken, seasoning to taste. While the sauce with the shrimp in it is reducing, dredge the pickled okra in seasoned flour and deep fry until golden brown and crispy. Just before plating, stir the remaining half of the butter into your shrimp and sauce. In the middle of a large bowl, place half of your hot grits. Top the grits with half of the shrimp and sauce. Garnish with half of the fried okra. Repeat for the second portion and serve immediately.