Okra has a complicated reputation. While it’s beloved in the southeastern United States, and often used to marvelous effect in East Indian cuisine, it is also infamous for having an off-putting slimy texture. It certainly can, but slime is not inevitable.
Okra is not common out here in the arid West. But I happened to stumble upon some organic okra at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market last year. I had no idea how to cook it, but decided to bring home a pound and see what I could come up with. Frying is traditional, and I have enjoyed eating it fried in the past, but I rarely fry food. It’s not so much about the fat; I just really don’t like the mess. I found some recipes that used okra in stew, but I really wanted to cook it mostly by itself, rather than having its flavor get lost in a melange of lots of other ingredients.
I called my sister to get her advice. She’s lived in Birmingham, Alabama, since the early 1980s. She loves cooking with local staples such as grits and collards, so I figured she’d know about okra. Her favorite way to cook okra is to roast it in the oven. She throws in a few other ingredients—onion, garlic, tomatoes, salt and pepper—drizzles the whole thing with olive oil, and roasts it for 15 minutes.
At the time I had all the ingredients on hand, including homegrown tomatoes, so I put it together in a little over five minutes plus the cooking time. It was wonderful, and there was not even a hint of slime.
This year I bought some more okra from the same organic farmer. My homegrown tomatoes weren’t quite ready when I made this two weeks ago, so I just used garlic, okra, salt and pepper. I also added some fresh basil, which I sprinkled on after I pulled the okra out of the oven so that the herbs would retain their freshness. I did miss the tomatoes, but it still tasted great.
One word about freshness: If you want to try using fresh okra now is the time. I bought some in late summer/early fall and it turned out to be very tough and basically inedible. If okra pods are more than two to three inches long, they are likely past their prime. If they slice easily, they’re probably fine, but if they’re difficult to chop, don’t bother spending any more time on them. Tough, stringy okra is not a pleasant dining experience.
When okra’s in its prime though, this very simple oven-roasted okra is delicious.
Here’s how to roast okra:
16-24 okra pods
1 T olive oil, more if needed
salt and pepper
Optional extras: chopped, fresh tomato; 1-2 cloves sliced garlic; minced shallot or small onion; fresh herbs
You can leave the pods whole, just cutting off the stem end, or you can cut them into 1/2-inch pieces. I’ve tried both ways and prefer the latter, but both are good.
Arrange all your ingredients in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Bake at 425° for 15 minutes. If you choose to use a toaster oven, check for doneness after 10 minutes.