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Tastes like okra

Okra hush puppies, only better

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On the Today show last week, cooking kitten Giada De Laurentiis asked Atlanta chef Scott Peacock what okra tastes like, and he said, "Like okra."

I thought about the question for a minute, and in a way, he's right. Okra, the only vegetable known to ooze when sliced, tastes like okra. If blindfolded with a plate of okra before me, I might say it tastes like asparagus, but only if it were quickly cooked and still toothy in an al dente sort of way. When it cozies up with stewy partners such as tomatoes, garlic or rice, and surrenders its slime, okra starts to taste a bit like eggplant, one might argue.

Regardless of where you stand on the fuzzy-green-seeded-slimy-podded matter, okra is undeniably a unique produce phenomenon, offering culinary versatility. In his short segment with Miz Giada, Peacock showcased okra five different ways, including a more detailed demo for okra fritters, as he called them. Coincidentally, these fritters are the very same that I've been cooing over in my own kitchen this month; I stumbled upon the recipe for "okra pancakes" in The Gift of Southern Cooking, the indispensable book Peacock wrote with the late Edna Lewis.

Although fried, these okra-onion-studded morsels are light on the tongue, yielding a thin, crisp skin and a pillowy interior, thanks to a relatively short swim in hot oil. In anticipation of the need for extra heat or dipping sauce, I had my favorite hot sauce at the ready, but there was no need. These babies are perfectly savory all by themselves, and as I discovered a week later, make terrific cocktail snacks (make just before guests arrive and keep in a warm oven).

"These are like okra hush puppies, only better," said my husband, while he grabbed his third or fourth fritter.

Actually, no comparison is necessary. There's nothing quite like these okra fritters -- or okra, for that matter -- and that is just OK with me.

Okra pancakes

From The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock

1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped

2 cups okra, thinly sliced (about 1/4 inch)

Oil for frying

In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt and baking powder and stir well to blend. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg and water, then stir into the dry ingredients, mixing only until moistened (lumps OK). Sprinkle remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper over onion and sliced okra, and toss lightly. Fold seasoned vegetables into the batter. Pour 1 inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat to 340 degrees. Spoon okra batter by heaping tablespoons into hot oil; do not overcrowd pan (note: In a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, I was able to fit 4 at a time.) Fry until golden brown on one side, and with a slotted spoon or tongs, carefully turn and continue frying until second side is browned, about 3 minutes. Remove from oil and drain well on paper towels. Keep in a warm oven until ready to serve. Makes about 16 2-inch pancakes.

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