Okra is a Southern dish that goes way back. It’s origin is disputed. Many say it was brought to America from Africa on slave ships. Thomas Jefferson wrote about it being common in Virginia by the late 1700s. There are records going back to the 12th and 13th centuries of its use in Egypt, and it may have spread West from there. But who cares, right? It’s here now, and it’s delicious. Some boil it, some fry it, and others add it to stew. It’s a key ingredient in gumbo. In fact, gumbo literally means okra.

Unless you are plagued with kidney stones, okra is a popular health food. It is high in fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants. Well, I am plagued with kidney stones, but that doesn’t hinder me from eating okra. The problem is the amount of oxalic acid which precipitates the formulation of calcium oxalate stones in the kidneys. But we are not going to talk about that any longer.

I am adding this recipe to my blog for the sake of my children. No matter how much I cook, there is never a crumb left! I made the recipe very detailed since they are learning to cook. Note well, my recipe is not the common way to prepare okra, but my family would not want it cooked any other way. Most okra today seems to be cooked in “fried chicken” manner. It is dipped in a batter consisting of flour and egg, then fried in a deep fat fryer. That is not how Cripps Okra is cooked. First of all, I fry a mixture of equal parts okra and potato chunks. I use cornmeal only, and fry the chunks in a regular frying pan with just enough oil to cover the ingredients. It is sometimes difficult for me to write out my recipes because I don’t measure anything. For most of these blog posts, I will try my best to measure things. With others I would rather teach you to use your senses. I’ll explain this along the way of cooking up a batch of fresh okra from the garden.

Let’s begin by gathering everything you’ll need:John Cripps Preparing Okra

1. Cutting board, sharp knife, two bowls, three plates, white corn meal, cooking oil, frying pan, spatula, strainer of preference, okra, potatoes, salt, black pepper (or better yet, Morton’s Natures Seasons celery salt).

2. Only use fresh or thawed okra. Do not use frozen okra for this recipe. Cut up the okra first, and place the chunks in a bowl. As for size, use your judgment. Most okra is cut into 1/2″ or so chunks. For this recipe, I prefer my okra to be about half that size. Without using the egg and flour batter, you will find the cornmeal doesn’t coat the okra as well. That’s OK, this is Cripps okra. We are going after a different flavor. The smaller size will give more “crust” flavor overall. There is no need to measure anything here. Just cut up however much okra you’d like to cook.

3. You are going to slice and dice the potatoes into small square chunks, and match the quantity of the cut okra in a separate bowl. Depending on the amount of okra, start out with peeling 2-3 potatoes. Slice them length-wise. Slice them further as you would french fries, then turn them and slice at a right angle to produce the chunks we are looking for.John Cripps Preparing Okra

4. Take two plates and set them close to the stove. Pour out plenty of corn meal on the left one. Take one handful of okra and one of potato from the bowls, and place them on the corn meal. Some people will put the okra in a paper bag, pour in flour or corn meal, shake it up, and pour it out for cooking. I learned a better way from a world-class fry cook in Florida. I’ll try to explain it in Step 5.

5. Mix the okra and potato chunks with the corn meal as best as you can by sprinkling, mixing, rolling, etc. Once nicely coated, cup your hands underneath a small handful of the combination okra and potato. You are going to bounce the ingredients back and forth in your cupped hands as if you were holding something hot. You need to allow a little space between the bottom of your hands. As you bounce the chunks back and forth, the excess corn meal falls through your hands back onto the plate below. Place your finished, coated chunks on the plate to the right, and keep going until you get a plateful, or a decent amount to fit on a single layer in your frying pan.

6. Normally, I would start my oil heating while preparing Step 5. The first time you may want to get everything to this point, then start your oil. One thing to note, if you are taking a good bit of time to get to this step, you may need to place your okra and potatoes in the refrigerator until you are ready. Use fresh oil and pour enough to just cover the size of your chunks. I know people do it all the time, but you should never reuse cooking oil. The heat breaks down the oil. It renders it rancid, and full of undesirable compounds, like trans fats. Heat your oil to a medium high heat of 350-375 degrees. I don’t use a thermometer. I will fling a couple drops of water on the heated oil, and see if it dances on top. The Chinese cooks just spit in it, but we’ll go with the water. If you want to be certain, just drop a popcorn kernel into the oil. When it pops the oil is in the 365-375 degree neighborhood. I recommend learning to listen, and know the sound “ready oil” makes when you add a sample chunk to it.

7. AJohn Cripps Cooked Okradd your chunks to the hot grease, and take a spatula to gently move them around. Try to keep them from sticking together. The key here is to be as gentle as possible being careful not to knock off too much of the corn meal. When are they done? I listen to the sound of the oil, but most people judge by “brownness.” True, if your oil is fresh, the chunks will have a nice browning look to them when complete. They will be floating on the oil, and the sound will go from a heavy sizzle to a soft bubbling.

8. Remove the finished chunks from the oil with a strainer, and place them on plate number three with a folded double sheet of paper towel. Apply a liberal amount of salt and black pepper. Our family favorite is to substitute that with Morton’s Natures Seasons. The meal will taste much better if eaten before it is allowed to get cold. If necessary, place the cooked chunks in the oven, and turn set the temperature to 200 degrees.

Enjoy! Kidney stones be damned!

Growing Okra

I grow my own okra and it is a very simple plant for Southern gardens. Nurseries sell okra seedlings for transplant, but it is not the preferred method. Okra grows really quick once the soil has warmed up in the springtime. You can’t rush okra. It is waiting for the hot weather to kick in to really take off. Keep it watered and weeded well and the plants will grow to 4-5′ tall (or higher) and produce a LOT of okra pods. Sow your okra seeds about 3/4″ deep into tilled soil. I usually save my seeds, and I’ve never had a problem with low germination rates. However, I always sow double the seeds, and thin the plants to about 7-8 inches apart.

After the flowers appear, it won’t be long until you are harvesting pods. Make sure you harvest every single day. They grow really fast, and one day can often mean the difference between a tender, tasty pod and a woody, crunchy tasteless pod. You will know you’ve waited too long when you go to slice them. Instead of silently slicing through a tender pod, you will hear the plastic crunchy sound of waiting too long. Even if you let some go too far, be sure to remove them so production stays high on the plant. Harvest the pods with a knife or pruning shears. Do not try to break them off. They are quite tough and you can damage the plant. I always let my nicest looking plant go to seed at the end of the season. I will let the pods completely mature and harden. They will look like wood. I then remove them, place them in a Ziploc or container, and remove the seeds next Spring for planting.