HOT TEXAS OKRA
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
12 large pieces okra, each sliced crosswise into 3 to 4 pieces
2 medium shallots, or small onions, thinly sliced
1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup whole raw walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. In a medium skillet set over medium heat, warm the olive oil until it begins to smoke.
2. Add the okra and sauté until it begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, add the shallots and jalapeño and cook for 1 minute.
3. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the walnuts and tomatoes and toss to incorporate. Add the sherry vinegar and bring to a simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced and the pan is almost dry, about 4 to 6 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and add the butter. Stir to incorporate and serve immediately.
Foodie Notes: Have you ever noticed how much better food seems to taste when you are on vacation? In my experience, there are always dishes you experience on vacation that blow your mind so throughly, you attempt to break them down to their simplest components. You find yourself making mental notes that you hope will help you recreate that dish once you are back in the comfort of your own home kitchen. When you make a dish you enjoyed on vacation, what you really are doing is rekindling that feeling of discovery and wonder you felt when you were free from worry and your only goal was to be in the moment and taste your food. It is powerful thing to make something that brings back such wonderful memories. That would be my experience with this dish.
I had flown to Austin, TX with my Cowboy with a quick pit stop in Dallas to see my brother over Memorial Day weekend. It was my first time flying a long distance with Cowboy, who is a pilot, and I was excited to realize that we could pick up and go anytime we wanted to with skills like his. I love traveling. It makes me feel alive and stimulates me in a way that I simply can't explain. I always come back, from even a small trip, feeling like my world view has changed somehow. I was looking forward to eating on this trip, Austin being the interesting food town that it is, and I had the places I wanted to hit already all mapped out.
Traveling with me, a self-professed one-trick pony, you know you are going to be well fed and eat at some incredible places. As far as deciding what sights to see, I think that is someone else's job. There is nothing more I want to see and experience when I am on vacation, than a particular cities food and drink scene. I look at it as educating my palate.
We landed on the apron at the Austin airport and taxied in our plane over to the private airline hanger where we would park the plane for the next few days. It had been hot, that summer day when we flew, and we were both ready for a shower. But I won't lie, there is something inherently suave about flying to a vacation destination privately. No security, no lines, no people . . .no hassles. When I climbed out of the cabin of our private plane, I felt the sense of privilege and freedom that only private flying can evoke. I can see now, why man wants to learn to fly . . .if only to keep their shoes on their feet and not have to submit to a body scan every time they want to take to the skies.
I had decided that our first night in Austin should be a relaxed meal, perhaps served outside, with simple good food. Dining under the stars, seemed like the perfect way to start our long weekend in Austin. Contigo was selected as it met all of my criteria for our first meal.
When we pulled up to the Contigo, I was surprised to realize there really was no "place" to it. It was a bar, a couple of bathrooms, a kitchen and the entire dining room was outside under the stars with several strings of lights giving the entire patio a kind of warm glow. It was charming.
Groups of friends were breaking bread together casually, seated around long wooden tables laden with what seemed like hundreds of small bowls as waitresses filled wine glasses to the brim. Another couple were toasting each other in an intimate nod to the start of their weekend together. It was the perfect place to start our weekend in Austin as well, I thought, clinking cocktail glasses with Cowboy. It was communal and convivial. I loved the vibe.
Looking over the menu our decisions would not be easy. Doing what I do for a living, I, of course, wanted to see everything on the menu. Cowboy and I sat pouring over the menu. The Contigo okra dish was a must because it was not served breaded and fried or pickled. How would they cook this dish and have it not turn into a pile of okra goo? We had to know.
When the dish came out to the table it looked simple enough, but the interplay of flavors and textures was intriuging and led to more questions than answers. It looked like a simple stir fry of crisp okra, shallots, garlic and jalapenos. It was finished with a light sherry vinegar sauce and then at the end they tossed in the fresh cherry tomatoes and the toasted walnuts. It was a brilliant dish, and absolutely no okra goo. It was one of the dishes that I stuck in my pocket from my Austin trip that I wanted to try at home.
When I got home, I googled "Contingo Okra," and found the fantastic video above, by Austin director, Christian Remde, of the how the okra dish at Contigo is actually prepared and the ingredients in it. I felt like I had been given the key to the city of Austin, finding this video, and eventually the recipe, online. I also realized that I must not be the only one who loved that okra dish at Contigo and wanted to recreate it at home. They must get asked for the recipe all of the time.
My first attempt at the okra dish, was a disaster. I used balsamic vinegar, as I did not know it was sherry vinegar that they used until I came across the actual recipe in Tasting Table. I ended up with a sticky, slimy black mess. I over cooked it, and over crowded the pan and used way too much of the wrong vinegar. I did some reading about okra then, and realized that the goo in okra which is a benefit if using it in jambalaya to thicken the stew, only occurs when you apply heat to it. If you cut a raw okra in half, it is dry as a bone. Start to cook it, and the "mucilage" or goo is released. The key to keeping the goo to a minimum is to cut the okra on a bias, giving you more surface area to sear in a blazing hot pan. Do not over crowd the pan you want to cook the okra and the ingredients for just a few minutes and then finish with the sherry vinegar and butter. Buy a good quality sherry vinegar for this dish, as you can really taste it, and it is worth the extra money. I bought mine at the Tasteful Olive in downtown Overland Park.
I was asked to teach a cooking class at Powell Gardens this year as part of their Garden Chef Series where every Sunday from June until October at 2 pm at Powell Gardens, they host a different Chef at the Missouri Barn in the Heartland Edible Gardens to teach a dish to anyone who wants to stop by and watch and learn. The goal is to show people how to make dishes that use the items that come from the Heartland Harvest Garden and are in season at the moment. When they called me from Powell Garden, I said plainly: "I really appreciate the offer, but I am not a Chef. I am an accomplished home cook that continues to learn something new every time I stand in front of the stove, and I love that about cooking. It IS my continuing education class." But they would not take no for an anwer, and I managed to have a conversation about hosting Test Kitchen out there as well, so it seemed like a relationship worth investing myself in, both professionally and personally. Besides, I really love and appreciate the work that they are doing at the Heartland Harvest Garden. It is important for us who live in the city and do not grow our own vegetables to have some sense of what they look like in a garden, growing naturally. It is a great lesson for our kids, as well.
Long story short, this okra dish was what I chose to make for my cooking class out at Powell Gardens. I chose it because it allowed me to do what I do best, to honor Exeuctive Chef Andrew Wisehart's dish by teaching it to others, and it was the peak season for all of the ingredients needed. My thought process was: if we are doing these classes to teach people how to use what is growing in their gardens and in season now, lets make sure it uses as many in season vegetables as possible in the recipe. I sourced everything for my class through the Heartland Harvest Garden. I literally only had to bring olive oil, sherry vinegar, toasted walnuts and a little bit of butter for the finishing sauce. Easiest cooking class I had ever taught, on one of the hottest days of the year out at the gardens.
But there was a fantastic upside to this story, aside from meeting the lovely people who braved the heat to come out to learn about this recipe, I got to take home all of the left over ingredients they had sourced from the garden. Never have I been so rich with produce. Just look at my countertop above heaving with this colorful bounty.
If you have only enjoyed okra deep-fried or pickled, I encourage you to try this recipe. It will change your mind about okra, in all the best ways possible.