20 August 2009

My Favorite Food Group

If you haven't heard one of my raves about being from the South, you haven't been listening carefully while I'm speaking or you've never spoken with me. Yes, I'm a southern girl with southern tastes and southern sensibilities. I'm a southern girl with some southern eating habits.

What's a southern eating habit? Well, there are a few. I only have some of them because, well, there's a squeamish picky eater dwelling within this particular southern girl (hence most of the reason I'm a vegetarian). I do, though, possess the most southern of eating habits - the preference for all things FRIED.

Fried food is the very best food there is. Whether you're a sweet or savory person, one of your top ten favorite dishes is probably fried (you may not want to admit it, but one of them is fried and you know it). There's just something about the effect hot fat has on food that causes me (and you too, admit it) to swoon. Fried food smells good. It has that satisfying texture (sometimes crunchy, sometimes achingly giving with a toothsome resistance, sometimes crisp on the outside and creamy or fluffy on the inside). Fried food is rich and flavorful and, let's face it, downright fun. Who doesn't have fond memories of a funnel cake or french fries or corn dog or doughnut? Face it, fried food is good stuff.

Of course I'm not ignorant of the lousy nutrition news on the fried food front - trans fats, saturated fats, high cholesterol, obesity...yadda yadda yadda. Yes, fried foods, for all of their tasty and comforting virtue, are HORRIBLE for your health. I get it. Moderation. Yeah yeah yeah.

As a fried food fiend married to a fried food fan, I've worked hard to work the flavors of our favorite food group (well, J may call frozen dairy his favorite food group, but he's not writing this blog now is he?) alive and well in our diet without killing us both before we're 50. I've been "oven frying" since college and have worked out some techniques that make for some mighty tasty cuisine (is fried food too populist to refer to as "cuisine"?). Some fun and interesting green market finds this summer have given me the chance to play with oven frying with some tasty results.

I love fried okra. It's definitely a southern thing. Okra can be really intimidating and freaky looking to some (I witnessed a few people "ew"-ing at the green market recently while pointing at a beautiful mound of $4 a pound okra. I've also had people warning me about the "yukky slime" inside the okra.).

It's tasty and healthy (okra itself is low in calories and high in dietary fiber and vitamin c). Of course, when you coat it with eggs and cornmeal and sling it into a vat of hot fat, the calories skyrocket and the negative health effects start to outweigh the positive. I'm not a fan for steamed or stewed or boiled okra, so my okra purchases at the green market were destined for a healthier version of my favorite okra preparation - fried.

Frying okra involved a few basic steps: slice the okra, swath the bits in something that will get the coating to stick, stick on the coating, fry those babies up, and eat.

I decided to use egg whites as my glue instead of whole eggs. If you're not into eggs or egg whites, this works pretty well with fat free Italian salad dressing. It's a little heavier than eggs so it tends to slide off in large clumps, but with some patience, it does indeed work.

For the coating, I love a cornmeal base. You can look up recipes on line for straight cornmeal, seasoned cornmeal, cornmeal lightened with flour, and more. I, being the lazy cook that I am, like to use cornbread mix out of a box for my fried okra. Yes, I buy cornbred mix in a box. It's what I grew up on and I like it. It's got a good balance of grainy corn meal and lighter flour and some sweetness along with saltiness. Best of all, it's easy peasy, Lemon Squeasy. So, after taking a swim in some egg whites (or egg substitute), my okra rolls around in cornbread mix.

J thinks I'm a bit neurotic for lining up the breaded okra slices on my (foil-lined, and oil-sprayed) baking sheets, but there's something comforting about this ordered assembly of my little okra soldiers.

I give my okra army a spray of oil (I like canola for this job) and deploy them into the hot battle zone of a 500 degree (Fahrenheit, of course) oven. They bake for about 13 minutes (I have a thing for prime numbers) before I flip them and bake them for at least another 13 minutes. When they are GBD (golden brown and delicious), I scoop them into a bowl and run and hide in another room where J can't find me and my tasty little goodies. No, I actually do share them. They are crunchy and sweet and salty and oh so satisfying. Of course they are not just as good as the fried okra of my southern youth - I don't lie to myself or you about that. They are good, though, and very little guilt is involved in sharing a bowl of these with my Bubba.

I used the same technique on some funky hot peppers I found at the green market last week. These were SPICY and delicously good. Who needs jalapeno poppers (filled with cheese and other uhealthy bits), when I can oven fry some hot pepper poppers and be just as satisfied? J and I like these with some refreshing cocktails for our own spicy happy hour.

I use a similar technique, substituting seasoned bread crumbs for the corn bread mix, for oven frying eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash. The larger slices of these veggies need to bake a bit longer than the okra or the peppers, but the results are just as good.

Of course, fried foods love to be dipped in sauces. J likes cocktail sauce for zucchini. I suspect cocktail sauce would be good on the okra as well. I did serve the eggplant with some freshly made pesto - that was fabulous. Although we ate the hot peppers straight, I can imagine taming their fiery heat with a tasty sour cream based dip (low fat sour cream, of course).

I picked up a few pounds of okra and hot peppers at the green market yesterday. Although J doesn't want me firing up the oven during the summer, he won't argue with me today because he knows he's getting "fried" okra and peppers served along side his dinner tonight.


  1. Thanks for some great ideas! I will make a vegan version based on your recipe. And now I recognize the okra...

    Lisa M.

  2. Nicole, I love this article. It is perfect for someone who is just starting out with cooking; the photos, the explanations and the way you got me to crave these all make for a great combination. I am looking forward to experimenting with my zuchinni blossoms, so thanks for giving me some tips about those too. I hadn't seen them in my local supermarket, so I'm looking forward to trying something new.

  3. p.s. I know this article will also be great for me, too, once I get more practiced and am looking for reminders about different dishes to cook; I'll be able to look back at this and get hungry for fried okra all over again :).

  4. You forgot to mention hushpuppies! I also loved fried okra growing up. Even though I was a terribly picky eater, I liked okra - weird. Always fried, until a few years ago I tried an Indian dish with little baby okra, and fell in love with the whole, un-breaded, sauteed style -