Slimy rocks

The more I cook the more I find myself chasing texture as much as flavour. The crunch of a gherkin with a rough country pate, the crispness of roast chicken skin and the gelatinous stickiness of a lamb shank. Okra, also known as lady’s fingers, is a must-have vegetable for the texture chaser. The late British cook and food writer Jane Grigson says its mucilaginous juice provides a ‘jellied smoothness’ to a sauce but the word that fits best I think is slimy.

When okra appears in recipes written by cooks not keen on the slime factor, elaborate instructions to salt the okra and leave in the sun, or rinse split pods in a solution of vinegar and water are included. These can safely be ignored. In fact it’s the slippery quality of okra that Americans in the deep south prize for its ability to thicken gumbo.

Late comedian Robin Williams loathed the stuff.

Okra is the closest thing to nylon I’ve ever eaten. It’s like they bred cotton with a green bean. Okra, tastes like snot.

Rest assured, it doesn’t. Actually it doesn’t taste of anything much which what makes it so versatile. Indians stew okra with spices and sometimes stuff the pods before crisp frying them. Greeks cook it with garlic, onion or leeks, tomatoes, lemon, parsley and olive oil which is delicious served hot or cold.

Fresh okra should be bright green with none of the brown patches that signal stock past its prime. As with many greens, smaller specimens are more tender and the best okra shouldn’t be more than about 6 cm long. It has a comparatively short shelf life so it’s best to buy only what you need no more than a day or so before cooking. A wash and trim of the conical stalk end is usually all that’s required by way of preparation. Australian cook Stephanie Alexander warns against cooking okra in an aluminium pan which she says turns the vegetable an unappetising shade of grey.

Strictly speaking it’s in season from mid Summer through to Autumn but it may make a surprise appearance in the depths of winter. So tell me, readers, where do you stand on slime?

Okra blog

Gumbo 

This has been adapted from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book

250g ham, cubed
1 large brown onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 red or green capsicum, chopped, minus seeds
olive oil
1 tablesp tomato concentrate
500g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
500g okra, trimmed
salt, pepper
cayenne or 1 dried chilli chopped

Stew the ham, onion celery and capsicum in a little oil or go trad and use lard. When they are beginning to soften, raise the heat so they colour lightly. Put in the tomato concentrate and the tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes begin to collapse and liquify, then add the okra and seasonings. Cover and simmer slowly until cooked, checking if a little water is required but don’t drown it. The okra should be only partially covered with liquid. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

 

 

Ratatouille and Fascism

Late summer, early autumn, it must be time to make the world’s best ratatouille. I first discovered this recipe in Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert, a food writer whose authenticity I love, and she attributes it to a Provencal restaurateur, Madame Saucourt.

Now Madame Saucourt was a bit of a recipe fascist it seems. The instructions she issued nearly scared Paula off the whole exercise – and Ms Wolfert’s not a cook easily rattled. So detailed. So uncompromising. And the quantities!

The onions must be the fresh sugary kind you find in the summer market. Don’t use red garlic, only white, and don’t use an aubergine that has a purple stalk because it will be bitter. Whatever you do, don’t reduce the recipe…Part of the great taste is due to the quantity. Most important, make this dish only in late summer when all the vegetables are ‘sun kissed’.

Yep, we’re talking about ten kilos of vegetables, a litre of olive oil and bails of herbs. Still when Paula Wolfert says it’s head and shoulders above any other ratatouille recipe then it’s worth listening. And even though she says “When you find the holy grail of a dish, you must respect it and never corrupt it” I reckon you can fiddle with it a bit. I’ve been making it for years and she’s right, it’s fabulous, but I rarely make quite as much as the original recipe dictates. She also says you get back most of the olive oil once the vegetables are drained but no, I find they soak it all up which is why it’s so good. I do stick like glue to the technique though and I think that’s what sets it apart.

There’s a lot to love about this. The technique means each of the ingredients retains its integrity rather than becoming lost in a sad, watery stew. But what I really love is how well it keeps. It becomes almost like a preserve, ready to spoon alongside roast lamb, chicken or sausages for at least a week if kept in the fridge. Cold it’s a great salad or, as Paula suggests, spread on pastry, crisscrossed with anchovies and baked into a tart. I actually had some for breakfast today with a fried egg.

Here’s the recipe with original quantities but you have my blessing to thumb your nose at Madame Saucourt’s hard line fascism. Text in brackets are my suggestions – just don’t tell Madame or PW. Oh and set aside about four hours for this, much of which can be spent away from the stove, drinking tea, etcetera.

Madame Saucourt’s Fabulous Ratatouille

2.3k eggplants
salt
2.3k onions (brown or white rather than red which might darken the dish) peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 litre extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs: rosemary, savory, peppermint, thyme, celery
1 bay leaf
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
500ml dry, fruity white wine (I’ve used red and rose – both fine)
900g ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
2.3k red capsicum
a few drops of red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs for garnish: basil, parsley, thyme, celery

Prepare at least one day in advance, giving it time to mellow.

Stem and peel the eggplant (or peel in stripes if you fancy some skin)
cut the flesh into 2.5cm cubes and place them in a deep pan filed with very salty water. Keep submerged with a non-corrodible plate for at least an hour. Stem and peel the zucchini (I don’t peel them). Cut them into the same sized cubes as eggplant and place in a deep colander. Toss zucchini with salt and let stand for 30 mins.

Meanwhile, in a very large heavy frying pan or heavy-bottomed roasting tin, cook the chopped onions with 100ml water in 250ml olive oil until the water has evaporated and the onions are soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped herbs, bay leaf, sugar, 1 tsp of salt, pepper and half the wine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often for 10 minutes.

Coarsely chops the tomatoes with their skins in the work bowl of the food processor. Add to the frying pan and continue cooking at a simmer for 90 minutes. Whenever the onion-tomato mixture starts to stick or burn, ‘spot deglaze’ with a few tablespoons water and scrape with a wooden spoon.

Grill the peppers; when cool, peel stem and seed and cut into small pieces. Set aside. Rinse and drain the eggplant and zucchini and pat them dry with kitchen paper.

Slowly heat the remaining 750ml olive oil in a wide pan big enough to hold everything (I use a large braising dish with a lid) until medium-hot. Add the zucchinis in batches and fry until golden on all sides. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a colander set over a bowl to catch any excess oil (I’ve never found there’s much to catch, the vegetables hanging on to most of it). Once the zucchinis have all been fried, do the eggplants as well and, if you have captured any oil you can tip it back into the pan to continue frying.

Spread the zucchinis, eggplants and capsicums over the simmering onion-tomato mixture and pour in the remaining wine. Cover and cook at a simmer for 90 mins. From time to time remove the cover to help evaporate some liquid. Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the contents of the pan into it to drain. Stir carefully to avoid crushing the vegetable while trying to encourage any trapped oil and juices to drain. If there is a lot of juice, boil it down until thick. Reserve all the frying oil (if there is any) for some other purpose. Pour the juices over the vegetables, taste for seasoning, add vinegar if necessary and carefully stir to combine. Serve hot or cold sprinkled with fresh herbs.