This week’s column shows why the skillet is better than the pot for certain maligned vegetables.
Brussels sprouts and okra really have nothing in common, other than they are small, green and often reviled. Brussels sprouts belong to the crucifer family, where they share obvious parentage with cabbages and cauliflower. Okra comes from the mallow family, along with the less obvious cacao and jute.
Yet the two share a history: They both made it through the long, dark ages of boiled vegetables without any scientific attempts at eradication, as for polio or some troublesome strain of ebola virus. Boiled brussels sprouts, the horror of Thanksgivings past, were waterlogged balls that smell of rotten eggs no matter how much margarine our mothers melted over them. Boiled okra decomposed into a puddle of slime and seed, and tasted of nothing so much as damp paper. It’s a wonder people continued raising okra rather than relegating the last viable seeds to a freezer in the basement of the CDC.
But wait. Both of these vegetables have become the darlings of trendy restaurants, thanks to the rediscovery of the skillet.
Smart chefs got to thinking that maybe some foods respond better to the hot, dry heat of a frying pan than to the rolling boil of the pot. You wouldn’t boil a T-bone steak or a ladle of pancake batter, right? Just because you boil peas and snap beans, that doesn’t mean every vegetable deserves the same treatment.
The only problem was that neither brussels sprouts nor okra have the flat surfaces that would actually sear in a skillet. Add them whole to a smoking-hot pan, and with some luck you’d end up with black spots on the surface and crunchy rawness in the center. (I’ve eaten raw brussels sprouts, and I wouldn’t recommend it.) On the plus side, you would get to find out if your smoke detector worked.
But what if you cut them through the middle? Then you could actually sear these vegetables and maybe even retain their crispness as they cooked.
Enterprising chefs devised the basic technique for cooking previously vilified vegetables. They cut them clean through the center, heated a good, thick skillet with a gloss of oil and seared them over high heat to get a mahogany tinge. Then they turned the heat down and cooked the vegetables for a few more minutes on their cut and uncut sides until they got to that magical place called “crisp tender.”
And this is what you should do, too, particularly now that the end of okra season will give into the beginning of brussels sprouts season. If you want a recipe, Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill has a terrific one in the August 2010 issue of Food & Wine magazine. He sears the okra just as I described, then tosses them right at the end with an Indian spice mixture of paprika, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, turmeric and fenugreek. He recommends serving it with lentils and yogurt.
I’ve found that once the cross-cut okra are well seared, then you can add wet ingredients without worrying about the okra going all gooey on you. In fact, I find that chopped tomatoes, chicken broth, butter and shallots finish the okra quite nicely.
So get some fresh okra and do this. Don’t cut crosswise, cut lengthwise. Heat pan. Place side down. Five or six minutes tops. Goodbye slime.
And if you like that, I’ve got a Thanksgiving recipe for you.