Jul 27 2011

Inspiration from North Carolina

This weekend, we turned these plump sap green okra into a delicately fried appetizer, topped with homemade tomato jam. I took a gamble that okra might be at the market last Saturday, and had a recipe in the back of my mind, just in case. As luck would have it, a pink bin of okra was nestled beside bins of zucchini and onions inside the Evolutionary Organics tent.

At the beginning of the morning, that bin was probably brimming with large green okra, but by the time I visited the tent, around 11 am, I could easily see the bottom of the bucket. Despite purchasing the last okra of the day, these vegetables were by no means the dregs.

The recipe I’d kept in the back of my mind was courtesy of Andrea Reusing’s new cookbook, Cooking in the Moment. Reusing, the recent James Beard award winner for best chef in the SouthEast, is the head chef at Chapel Hill’s Lantern Restaurant, a restaurant that I’m eager to visit whenever we journey further south. Though seasonal cookbooks are now in vogue--a trend of which I’m in full support--this seasonal cookbook reads not just as an idea of what to make in July, but as the essence of how Andrea approaches July in North Carolina. Having never met her or even dined at her restaurant, I still get a glimpse into her motivations and passions surrounding food traditions and sourcing. As she says in her book, “At work I eat first, but in the rest of my life I am an eater.”

For Reusing, cooking is “less about what flavors I could scheme to combine or track down and more about what was already here”. Cooking in the moment means focusing on one meal at a time: what ingredient is at the peak of its flavor right now? What’s the weather like outside? Who am I dining with? Even, what day of the week is it?

We considered all factors (weather, season, day of the week) last Saturday. We faced one of the hottest days of the year, so far, and while we wanted to showcase our Saturday market purchases, we weren’t eager to cook anything too laborious.

The word "fried" typically conjures images of something heavy. Reusing uses her batter to accompany, not dominate, the okra. Indian spices (cumin, fennel, coriander) combine with a garlicky, slightly spicy tomato relish, for a complicatedly satisfying taste. Our only concern with serving the okra as an appetizer was that our taste buds would be ruined for anything that followed! Thankfully we followed the okra with another Reusing recipe (zucchini ‘pasta’) and its gentle flavor was a welcome and appropriate entree.

Fried Okra with Indian Spices & Tomato Relish

From Cooking in the Moment

Hot Tomato Relish

(makes 2 cups)


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

2-3 garlic cloves, slivered lengthwise

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

4-5 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely diced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup white vinegar

1/4 teaspoon sugar


  1. Heat the oil in a medium sized (non reactive) pot over medium high heat. Add the mustard seeds and garlic, cooking until the garlic is light brown and the seeds start popping (2-3 minutes).
  2. Add the cayenne and turmeric. Cooking for 20 seconds before adding the tomatoes, salt, vinegar, and sugar.
  3. Simmer for 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and the relish has thickened. Serve hot!

Fried Okra with Indian Spices


1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 clove

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Vegetable oil

1 egg

1/4 cup buttermilk (add 1 tablespoon lemon juice to every cup of milk, to make buttermilk)

1 medium serrano chile, finely diced

2 tablespoons chickpea flour (we didn’t have chickpea flour, so we used Masa Harina, corn flour)

2 tablespoons of all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 pints okra (about 1 lb), stems removed

sea salt


  1. In a small pan over medium heat, toast the coriander, fennel, and clove for 1-2 minutes. Allow to cool and then grind and set aside. Then, toast the cumin seeds in the same fashion, adding to the ground spices when cool.
  2. Fill a deep heavy pan/stockpot with 2-3 inches of oil. Heat the oil over high heat until a thermometer reads 350.
  3. Beat the egg in a bowl. Whisk in the buttermilk and serrano. In another bowl, combine the chickpea flour, all purpose flour, salt, pepper, and spice mixture.
  4. Cut the okra into diagonals of 1/4 inch thickness. Out the slices into the bowl with the flour mixture, and toss together. Then, pour the egg mixture on top and mix with your hands. Make sure you coat all surfaces.
  5. Working in batches, use a slotted spoon to lay 6-8 slices into the hot oil. Cook each batch for 2 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels on a rack.
  6. Season with salt and serve with the tomato relish.