Okra is uncommon here in New England, and when it appears at the farmers’ market we make sure to buy a bagful. Making gumbo first comes to mind but, tucked away with other preparations to try, we had our eye on Okra Cornmeal Cakes. Thin slices of slightly grassy okra are encased in a nutty cornmeal pillow, with a just a hint of spice on the backbeat. The local flint cornmeal we used gave a distinctive popcorn-like flavor, turning this southern dish into something more regional and reminiscent of Johnnycakes.
We used a mix of okra — Clemson Spineless and Carmine Splendor — from Wake Robin Farm. The open-pollinated Clemson Spineless is a southern standard, while Carmine Spendor starts off deep red, turning a lighter shade as the pods grow larger. For those growing it themselves, the flowers are also edible. We don’t usually think of okra as health food, though, nutritionally speaking, they’re high in antioxidants, folates, vitamin C, and fiber, and a good source of calcium and potassium.
Many are turned off by the mucilaginous nature of okra, however, keeping the pods intact and using dry methods such as sautéing, grilling or frying are some of the ways to minimize this. Cooking okra with something acidic like tomatoes, or adding lemon or vinegar also helps. They become sticky when cut up, though long cooking dissolves this and may be used to thicken soups and stews. Where most okra have 5 to 8 points or seed chambers, the burgundy-colored one has only 5 — cut up, they resemble a bowlful of stars.
You can vary the size of the cakes, the smaller the easier to flip in a skillet of hot oil. Increasing the amount of oil gives a more fritter-like, crispy texture; less and these become softer and closer to pancakes. For variation, we imagine throwing in a handful of sweet corn into the batter or, when okra’s unavailable, substituting green peppers, or even some chopped up kale. To accompany them, we served the okra cakes hot with thick slices of juicy tomatoes, a vinegary slaw-like salad, and simply steamed filet beans on the side.
Okra Cornmeal Cakes
2 cups finely ground yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups cold water, plus more if needed
8 ounces fresh okra, stems trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, mashed into a paste
1/4 cup mild vegetable oil, for frying
– In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, baking powder, and fine salt. In a second bowl or large liquid measuring cup, combine the egg and water. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Add the okra, jalapeño, and garlic and stir to combine. (The batter should be thick and wet, not dry. Add a little more water at a time if needed. The amount will depend on the exact grind of the cornmeal.)
– Heat some or all of the oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, depending on how “fried” you like your cakes. Scoop 1/4 cup batter onto the heated surface and, if needed, flatten the griddle cake so it has an even surface. Repeat with additional batter, being careful not to crowd the skillet. Cook the griddle cakes until the bottoms are brown and bubbles form on the tops and edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook until the other side is golden brown, an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate or tray. Season the cooked griddle cakes with salt and pepper. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve immediately.
Adapted from “Basic to Brilliant, Y’All” by Virginia Willis, via Leite’s Culinaria.