Okra, Texas, founded in the last decade of the 19th century, lies in North Central Texas between Abilene and Fort Worth, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. But like the fruit (technically — call it a vegetable if you must) that bears its name, it sits unacknowledged and often dusty on the peripheral shelves of our great state’s history atelier. Mapquest defers to Ocker and Oscar, and the 1990 census could scare up only 20 residents.
Yes, a half cup of okra cooked (without bacon!) contains a mere 25 calories, but the health benefits of its fiber are trumpeted elsewhere (i.e. Illinois, even more unlike the cradle of okra — the Nile, according to several origin stories — than Tejas) and even professed fans talk of pickling and drop an octave to mitigate its sliminess with tales of its gumbo-thickening mojo. A fine ingredient for a rich stew, goes the common wisdom, but it’s no main ingredient. Much in the same way tourist websites suggest you might drive through Okra, Texas, on your way elsewhere to marvel that the highway ingress and egress signs are one and the same.
I’m speaking of course with the fervor of the newly converted, because until recently I primarily enjoyed okra fried (with a tart aioli for dipping) or spicy and jarred. Then I visited Los Angeles and had dinner at Rustic Canyon — a thoroughly contemporary medieval dining hall named, like so many LA products, after a scenic location where neither you nor I could afford so much as a garage apartment. I had succulent lamb chops; someone else’s rabbit tasted nothing like chicken. A Mediterranean mezze platter almost stole the show — except for the okra.
Sliced thinner than poker chips, sautéed with shallots, and brightened with lemon, the okra — a side, ordered as an afterthought — was the freshest and most surprising dish of the evening. It was light and somewhat crunchy, ever so slightly hairy, of course, with just a touch of that signature mucilaginousness.
After I returned to Texas I couldn’t stop thinking about that okra — and the fact that okra loves the demanding conditions that make so many crops a dicey go in the Lone Star State. I decided to visit the Pearl Brewery farmers market we’ve been advocating in Amuse-Bouche, and concoct my own version as part of a grown-in-Texas snack.
The tiny market sits in the shadow of Highway 281, and not everyone is hawking produce, but as the Texas Department of Agriculture promised, okra was well-represented. I picked up a basket of unblemished, firm, green and purple pods, a handful of tiny, wrinkly beets, and a motley bunch of radishes from My Father’s Farm of Seguin — which only takes donations because it’s a nonprofit — and a pound of beautiful, palm-sized, red-skinned potatoes from another vendor.
The Rustic Canyon okra appeared to have been sliced on the diagonal on a mandoline, a kitchen implement I haven’t added to my crowded apartment countertop, so I did my best with a sharp knife, slicing a clove of garlic for each half-pound of okra while I was at it. I sautéed them together for about five minutes in olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, adding a little freshly cracked pepper and salt, and about a teaspoon of red-pepper flakes about halfway through. After I transferred the dish to a warm bowl, I squeezed fresh lemon juice over it and gave it a toss.
I’d like to say the okra sauté made it to the main platter, but I ate most of it beforehand, marveling at how okra has a subtle, distinct flavor of its own. The potatoes and beets, which I roasted together in a shallow dish with olive oil, salt, and rosemary, had to play second-fiddle to a sausage platter, while the radishes — dense but not woody, and peppery enough to cause a little rapid blinking, perked up an otherwise ordinary butter-lettuce salad.
Okra will be a staple at the markets for a few more weeks, according to TDA, so go pick up a peck yourself, and try giving this underappreciated wallflower a dinner date to call its own. •