With the right cooking technique and a little finesse, you can bring out the fresh flavor of okra while holding the dreaded slime at bay. For best results, use a high-heat cooking method such as grilling or searing, which reduces the likelihood that you'll overcook the pods into a pile of gelatinous mush. Buy crisp, fresh 2- to 3-inch pods and clean them, scrubbing the fuzzy exteriors with a vegetable brush and rinsing them under cold water. You can achieve good results by also baking, frying or steaming unthawed frozen okra.
In his book BBQ USA, Steven Raichlen recommends grilling okra to complement its natural sweetness while reducing the likelihood of sliminess due to the high heat and fast cooking times. Clean the okra by rinsing it under cold water and blot it dry. Cut the tips off the stems, avoiding cutting into the pods. Toss the okra with olive oil and season it with salt and pepper. Optionally, add a little garlic powder, cayenne pepper or grilling seasonings for increased flavor. Fire up the grill to high or medium-high heat and arrange the okra across the grates. Grill okra for approximately 2 to 4 minutes per side until it's golden brown.
Pan-Frying and Searing
Pan-frying is another quick cooking method that minimizes the slimy texture that happens when you overcook okra. Toss the okra with salt and coarse-ground cornmeal, if desired. Grab a heavy-bottomed pan and place it over medium-high heat. Drizzle in a little cooking oil and heat it until it shimmers. Begin searing the okra in small batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Sear the okra for approximately 2 to 3 minutes per side until the pods are lightly charred and crisp-tender.
Prepare the okra for frying by cutting the pods into ½-inch-thick slices. Heat oil in a deep fryer or heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches 360 degrees Fahrenheit. In the meantime, soak the okra in buttermilk for approximately 5 minutes before coating it in panko breadcrumbs or your favorite batter. Add the battered okra to the hot oil, cooking it in batches for approximately 3 to 5 minutes, until the okra is golden. Transfer the okra to a baking sheet or plate lined with paper towels to drain the excess oil. Sprinkle the pieces with salt and serve the okra hot.
Baking and Roasting
Baking or roasting the okra lets the vegetable develop deep, roasted flavor. Start by tossing okra with olive oil, salt and pepper. Transfer the okra to a baking sheet and arrange it in a single layer. Roast it for approximately 15 minutes in an oven that's been heated to 450 F. Remove the pan once the pods are tender and light golden brown. Toss the hot okra with fresh or dried herbs and seasonings such as thyme, rosemary or garlic.
Stewing okra infuses it with other flavors and can help tenderize older, woody pods. Start by heating the cooking oil of your choice in a skillet over medium heat. Add aromatic vegetables such as onion and garlic and cook them until they are tender and fragrant. Stir in seasonings such as cumin, chili powder or cayenne pepper and add the okra. Cook the okra for 1 or 2 minutes before adding chopped, tender vegetables such as tomatoes and a small amount of water -- approximately 1/2 cup for each pound of okra. Continue cooking the mixture for another 5 minutes, until the okra is tender.
Steaming and Boiling
To steam okra, you need a pot, small amount of water and a steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil, place cleaned and trimmed okra in the steamer basket and cover the pot. Let the okra steam for approximately 5 to 6 minutes. To boil okra, fill a large pot with water and add 1 teaspoon of fresh citrus juice to the water to help minimize sliminess. Bring the water to a boil, add the okra and boil it for 5 minutes until the pods are tender.
It's impossible to talk about okra without mentioning gumbo. Unlike most other okra dishes, this Cajun classic uses the mucilage -- the slimy substance in okra -- to help thicken the cooking liquid. Brown whatever meat you're using in a heavy-bottomed pot. Transfer it to a plate and add oil to the pot to make the roux. Cook 1 part oil and 2 parts flour over medium-low heat until it's dark brown. Add seasonings such as garlic and the "holy trinity," made with onion, celery and bell pepper, and cook them until the aromatics are tender. Return the sausage and chicken -- or other meat -- to the pot, along with okra slices and broth or water. Simmer the mixture for approximately 60 minutes and serve it hot over white rice.