Tag Archives: okra

Okra Gets a Makeover

sinigang: okra in the usual form

Okra is a vegetable that gets a really bad rap. Since childhood it has been a favorite vegetable of mine and I can never get enough of it. Some think of it as slimy, but I think of it as both crispy and tender, naturally depending on how you cook it.  And when I am eating okra, I especially enjoy it when the little white pods burst in my mouth with every chew. Buying good quality produce is a bit difficult in the Czech Republic and buying “exotic” fruits and vegetables is a bigger challenge. However, with the right connections, I can get as much okra as I want, among other essential ingredients to create a hearty Asian meal.

Once a month, my “connection” delivers a kilo of okra to my door at 180 crowns, equal to 7 euros or 9 US dollars. For an okra lover like me it is definitely worth the price. I know for those non-okra lovers, you are probably thinking: “So what does one do with a kilo of okra?”

Usually, I cook a Filipino soup called Sinigang. Eggplants, green beans, onions, tomatoes, spinach and of course okra are the players and they are added to a tamarind broth, along with meat or shrimp. However you only need a third of the bag of okra for this dish. If I was back “home” I could easily buy some crabs, kabocha squash, fresh spinach, red chilis and fresh coconut milk and put one of my favorite Filipino dishes together, but that wasn’t going to happen here in Prague, especially in March. Lying ahead of me was a challenge, how could I cook okra in some other creative ways besides typically stewing them with tomatoes?

After sifting through my large cookbook collection, I chose four to help me search for a fun way to cook my long, slender and green pods: Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey, The Sultan’s Cookbook by Ozcan Ozan and Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Each one had some simple, yet deliciously sounding ways to dish up okra. However, one of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes really stood out. The dish came from Muslim Indians living in Uganda and after the vegetable is cooked with some flavorful spices like cumin, turmeric and cayenne, the serving suggestion was to add a” topping of scrambled eggs or omelette,” to the plate. Well, that triggered a thought ” Why not try this as a quiche?” Here is my adaptation of Ms. Jaffrey’s “Okra with Tomatoes” from World Vegetarian.

pungent okra quiche looking like a deep dish pizza

Pungent Okra Quiché

Ingredients:

1/4 cup canola oil

1 pound of fresh okra, cut the caps and the ends off and then slice diagonally into 1/4 thick slices

1 onion, chopped

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon salt

ground pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups of cream

4 eggs

1 pastry shell

Heat the oil in a frying pan.

When hot, lower and add the garlic until it is slightly brown. Then add the onions and tomatoes.

When the onions and tomatoes are soft, add the okra and cook until tender.

When the vegetables are done, add the spices, salt and pepper.

Warm up the oven at 180/350 degrees and prepare the pastry shell.

Let the vegetables and spices mix for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, beat the 4 eggs and add the cream, season with salt and pepper.

Then transfer the okra and company to the casserole. Pour the liquid mixture over the vegetables. Then let it bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until slightly golden and firm.

okra gets a make over

Two days later, I still had more okra to go. When I’m in a rush, I just throw string beans or sweet peas together with typical garlic, onion, tomato Filipino sofrito and stir fry it with some soy and oyster sauce. Then add some tofu. I thought it might be interesting to do this with the okra, but to also add some chilis and lime to the mixture as well. It was a blend of interesting flavors and it goes like this:

Stir Fried Okra with a Chili Lime kick

Ingredients:

3-4 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

250 grams/ half pound of Okra with the tops cut off

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 onion, chopped

1 tomato, chopped

6 shitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water, when soft, chop stems off and slice

6 button mushrooms, sliced

1 Tablespoon Oyster Sauce

1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon of corn starch

1 red chili or 1 tsp of dried chili flakes (add more for the caliente version!)

Heat oil in wok or non stick frying pan.

When hot, bring down to medium heat and add garlic.

When slightly golden, add onions and then tomatoes.

When the onions and tomatoes soften up, add the okra.

Stir fry for about 7-10 minutes. If you are working with a wok, the heat can be slightly higher.

Then add the mushrooms and stir around for 1-2 minutes.

Add the oyster and soy sauce. Stir and add water.

Let the vegetables stew in the sauce. About another 10 minutes.

To thicken sauce, stir the teaspoon of corn starch with a little bit of water in a small bowl. When it has turned into a paste, add it to the mixture and stir.

When the okra and mushrooms look tender, add the lime juice and chili flakes and let it cook for another 5 minutes.

Serve with a warm bowl of jasmine rice. You may also add some tofu to this dish. We enjoyed it with a bowl of pan-fried tofu which I posted on a earlier blog.

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Plantains and Okra

This morning, a student’s father came to my Kindergarten class to tell a story about what school was like when he was a child. “School Stories,” is a way for me to invite parents to be a part of the Kindergarten curriculum.  Through this activity children are exposed to the genre of storytelling, the concept of history (long ago and far away) and develop an awareness for the diversity of our world (comparing and contrasting the experiences they have heard and that of their own lives.)

The father is originally from Sierra Leone and one of the stories he told was about eating plantain chips at school for snack. At the end of each of our “School Stories,” families share a snack that has some particular meaning to them. In this case, it also connected to his school story. He also brought along with him pictures of plantain trees taken from a recent family trip to his village. Some of my students had never seen or even known that bananas grew on trees (poor kids!) Plantains- members of the banana family, but greener, longer, thicker skinned and are used in plentiful delicious ways.

When he pulled out 6 small plastic bags full of plantain chips, I immediately wondered where in Prague did he find them? Interestingly enough, I had packed several of these snack size bags of chips, along with 10 ripe plantain to bring back from my summer trip home from NYC. For many of my students, as well as my Czech teaching assistant, it was their first time trying them. The taste of these crisp, salty and thin chips was a surprising return back to memories of being a child and being forced to share with my two brothers. It also reminded me of Turon, Fried Plantains, Ginataang and many more other plantain dishes that I have enjoyed.

The chip satisfied some of my students’ taste buds, but overall most of the 5 and 6 year olds were expecting it to be sweet, similar to banana chips which they were already familiar with. Both my teaching assistant and I were curious to find out where he purchased the chips, so of course we asked. He told us that right in the heart of downtown Prague, there is a store that carries West African goods and that he would be sure to send us the address. My assistant, who was born and raised in Prague was surprised to hear that such a place existed. In her almost 40 years of living in this city, this was completely unknown to her.

The basket of chips eventually disappeared between our lips and some of the students. Then it was back to the regular routines of our school day- Recess, Reading, Writing, Storytime and Lunch. On this particular day, I had planned to leave school earlier as I had an appointment downtown.

Upon exiting the Mustek train station,  located in the heart of downtown Prague, turning the corner, I bumped into my student’s father. The same father who visited my classroom early this morning and who brought the plantain chips! We were so surprised to see each other and he immediately asked me if I had a few minutes because he could easily show me the shop in which he bought the chips. It was very close!

I had 15 minutes to spare and so he grabbed my hand and led me up the street. Awkward as it might seem, it didn’t feel awkward at all for him to hold my hand. It was as if he was holding the hand of his daughter’s and was so excited to show her something new. Something that validated him, his past, his roots. A feeling I could truly understand and I was very excited to learn about this shop. After walking past a block of busy retail shops, we turned the corner and walked pass a few more shops and restaurants. Prague is full of what they call “pasáz” many tunnels of indoor passages, where one may find cafes, bars, shops and offices. As we crossed the street, we entered a “pasáz,” where we walked a few more meters and up the steps to an African shop.

As we entered the store, I noticed many African sculptures and masks made from wood and textiles hanging from the window. A bit further back, were two African men, one sitting in front of a mirror, in a barber’s chair draped in a protective vinyl cloak. The other figure was behind him, closely monitoring the electric razor he used to trim the man’s hair. Alongside of them, was a busy shelf housing hair products, weaves, hair extensions and to my delight, bottles of marked up Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. Another one of the many products I usually buy in bulk to bring back. Not only because I like it’s creamy texture, but also because I have bought into the fact that maybe it does help with stretch marks. Back by the cash register, sat a huge carton, where I was told the plantain chips could be found. However, they happened to be sold out as he had purchased the last of them the day before. In the box, was also some bags of other popular West African snacks.

He led me to another level of the shop and there I found more goodies. Along one of the walls, there was a shelf with four open boxes. He pointed out that there were yams and the two empty ones besides them usually held cassava. One day, I silently vowed, to return in order to make cassava cake. On the opposite side, there was a row of shelves which housed cans of sardines, corned beef, bags of jasmine rice, cartons of custard powder and fufu flour. Fufu is flour made from plantains. To the left sat two freezers loaded with frozen bags of vacuum sealed smoked fish, meats, and packages of frozen okra. Sitting on top of one of the freezers there were fresh vegetables wrapped in plastic. Among them, laying and waiting for me, was one of my most favorite green vegetables…OKRA!
Now, I know that some of you can’t imagine why okra could be a favorite, and to those of you I wonder why you can’t appreciate the diverse qualities of this tender vegetable. It can be cooked to a crisp, boiled, steamed or eaten just plain raw. I am aware, that if cooked a certain way it has a bit of a slimy texture to it, but I like that in a food, think custard, think jello, think pudding! They too are slimy but delicious, well, maybe not jello.

The last time I purchased okra was just this past summer, at The Golden Mango, a grocery store in my parents neighborhood in Queens. The package of about 30 pieces of okra costs only $.99. In my hand, I was holding a pack of okra that weighed less than the one I just described and the price tag read 80 Czech crowns. The equivalent to dollars at the current exchange rate made that $4.70 for about 15 pieces of okra. Could I really spend almost $5.00 on a small parcel of okra?

Well, yes. It’s one of my favorite vegetables and I can still remember the first time I saw okra growing in the backyard of my aunt’s home in the Philippines. I was 13 and right behind her porch she pointed to a field of plants as tall as me. Then she walked me over and showed me how the pods were still attached to their stems and how to carefully remove them. All this she highlighted for me, after watching me collect and devour all of the okra in the dish she had prepared.

In the end, I bought two packs, yes I know there is a current economic crisis, but these precious pods of okra would definitely not be a wasted purchase. In fact, I had created a new and exciting challenge for myself.  Now, I needed to decide which dishes I would plan to use them for… sinigang, a tangy tamirind stew or ginataang ng hipon, okra boiled in coconut sauce with orange squash and shrimp or stir fried okra in tomato sauce or….well, the list is endless.

Strangely enough, I started out this morning hoping to expand my students’ understanding for the vast diversity of our world through their own family stories. The adventure I planned to take my students on actually led ME to a new learning experience. Today, I had discovered one more shop to add to my list of places to purchase obscure ingredients, but that is not all I received. Although the price of the okra seems a bit exaggerated, it was also a small reminder to never take the little things for granted.

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Filed under Prague Inspires!