Ashley Christensen explores Southern cooking, paying respect to tradition while adding her own spin on things in Poole’s.
Both okra and deep-frying are key pillars of Southern cooking, but they share another trait: they can be intimidating to home cooks. If the idea of okra or deep-frying (or both) makes you uneasy, this recipe is your reassurance. It’s both simple enough and delicious enough to help you move past your fears. Plus, the technique is extremely versatile, and it works seamlessly with a plethora of vegetables and seafood.
The most important step in frying is confidence. A lot of folks are afraid of hot oil, so they tend to keep plenty of space from it, pitching ingredients into the pot like they’re shooting free throws. Doing so causes the hot oil to splash, which highly increases your chance of getting burned. Please don’t do this! Instead, be the boss: get close enough to the pot to gently release the battered item into the fryer, whether you’re using a fry basket or your hands. This allows the oil temperature to adjust to the lower temperature of your ingredients, which keeps it from spattering and splashing. One more note about frying: a thermometer is your best friend. If the oil isn’t hot enough, it will saturate whatever you’re frying, turning it into a greasy mess. If your oil is too hot, it will cook the exterior faster than the interior, giving your food a burnt flavor. And of course, the temperature of your oil will fluctuate, making this whole process a little bit of a balancing act—it will lower when you add your ingredients; it will creep up if you leave the heat on high the whole time. The only way to know where you stand and guarantee success is by following your thermometer. Do not attempt this or any frying recipe without one.
In the old school approach to fried okra, the okra pods are cut into coins before being battered and fried. This style is delicious and crispy, but you tend to taste more of the batter than the okra, which, to me, sort of undermines the beauty of the dish. I cut the okra in half lengthwise, a shape that mimics French fries and makes it highly suitable for dipping in a condiment of your choosing.
I suggest serving the okra with Tabasco mayo, which presents a flavorful heat without firebombing your palate. Mayo of any persuasion complements this crispy dish, but serve it with any condiment that floats your boat. Remember, you’re the boss.
Green tomatoes play well by this same approach. I like to slice them in wedges (as opposed to the traditional sandwich-style slices), so that the center of the wedge stays tart and fruity and the outsides get rich and burnished.
- In a food processor, puree the egg yolk, salt, mustard, and vinegar. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until thick and emulsified. Store in a lidded container in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.
- To make the mayo, in a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the Tabasco to a simmer and reduce by half. Let cool completely. Stir the Tabasco reduction into the mayo and store in a lidded container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- Place the buttermilk in a shallow mixing bowl. Place the cornmeal and salt in a second large mixing bowl.
- Line a baking sheet with two or three layers of paper towel. Pour oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, filling it about half full. Heat the oil over high heat until it reaches 325°F on a kitchen thermometer.
- When the oil is hot, dredge and fry the okra. Working in batches, put the okra in the buttermilk and use a spoon or your hands to coat it com¬pletely. Remove the okra, letting any excess buttermilk drip back into the bowl, then transfer to the cornmeal and toss to completely coat. Pull the okra from the cornmeal and gently place it in the hot oil. Fry each batch for 3 to 4 minutes, turning occasionally with tongs, until the crust on each piece is golden brown. As the okra finishes, transfer it to the prepared baking sheet to drain briefly, then serve immediately with the Tabasco mayo. Repeat with the remaining okra in batches, keeping it coming fresh and hot to your guests.
Reprinted with permission from Poole’s, copyright © 2016 by Ashley Christensen, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.