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Don't Call Me Chef

Published: Saturday March 7, 2015 MYT 6:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday March 16, 2015 MYT 6:59:56 PM

Putting the OK in okra

Opinion may be divided on lady’s fingers or okra, but it all depends on how you cook the vegetable. Here are three recipes.

If the Internet is to be believed, okra – lady’s finger to us – is now the new superfood.

Proponents claim, among its long list of health benefits, that the vegetable can prevent diabetes and colon cancer, promote healthy eyes and pregnancy, and relieve respiratory issues, besides keeping you regular and boosting your mood.

However, when we did a quick survey around the office of what our colleagues thought of lady’s fingers, we got one of two responses: something along the lines of “mmm, love it!” or a scrunched-up face and mention of slime.

Obviously, health benefits or not, with most people it all comes down to taste and – more importantly – texture.

So, for those who find the slimy pod and seeds of lady’s fingers off-putting, these are some tips from the WWW on how to reduce the mucilage:

> Soak the lady’s fingers in vinegar before cooking.

> Add a little lemon or lime juice to the cooking water.

> Cut the pods into large chunks so there is less surface area.

> Bread and deep-fry.

> Salt only towards the end of cooking.

> Use the whole pods.

In the end, it depends on the dish you’re using the lady’s fingers in. Bottom line is: Cook on high heat and cook it fast. It’s what our mothers told us. And aren’t they always the best sources to believe?

Clockwise from top left: Chicken and okra gumbo; lady’s finger chips; and ladys fingers pachadi.
The three dishes made with lady's fingers. Clockwise from top left: Chicken and okra gumbo; lady’s finger chips; and lady's fingers pachadi.

No time for slime
By S. Indramalar

EVER since I was first introduced to it maybe 37 years ago, I’ve hated lady’s fingers. The sliminess of the vegetable, often even after it’s cooked and the white seeds that fill the pod are a major turn-off. While I couldn’t avoid it being served onto my plate as a child, I now purposefully avoid it at all costs. So this month’s challenge of cooking a dish with lady’s fingers was something of a nightmare for me. Well, at least it was until Jane revealed a snack of okra chips (it is called okra in the United States) which she’d sampled while on holiday in California recently.

Okra chips? That sounded slime-and-seed-free and possibly even tasty. I tried a few ways to make the fingers into chips.

For my first attempt, I tried to get away with handling the vegetable too much – I didn’t want to encounter the goo inside. So I washed them, patted them dry and then tossed them whole in some olive oil and seasoned them in salt, pepper and paprika. I then roasted them on low heat for about 90 minutes.

They were crispy and brown on the inside but when I sliced them, they were still goey. So that was a no go.

On my second try, I sliced them in half, tossed them in olive oil, season them with salt, pepper and garlic powder and then roasted them, on a low heat (120°C) for about 90 minutes. Slicing them cooked the inside and there was a little crunch on the outside but it was not crispy.

Finally, on my third attempt, I nailed it. The lady’s fingers (sliced in half, lengthwise) turned out crispy, crunchy and delicious. Yes, I never thought I’d use that word to describe them but they were delicious. And I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth. I think I ate the almost-half kilogram worth of chips in two hours.

The secret is to nuke them – bake them under really high heat (200°C) for 15 minutes and then for at least two hours on low heat (120°C). They will come out looking more like vanilla pods than lady’s fingers but I finally found a way to enjoy, not just eat, the vegetable.

Crispy, crunchy, nuked goodness. Ladys finger chips may soon become the latest snack craze. Food photo shoot. RAYMOND OOI/ The Star

Lady’s Finger Chips

450g lady’s fingers
2 tbsp olive oil
salt, pepper and curry powder to season
2 tbsp vinegar

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Cut the lady’s fingers in half lengthwise. Put them in a bowl and cover with water. Add in the vinegar and stir to incorporate. Let the lady’s fingers soak for about 15 minutes. The vinegar will make it easier to wipe off the slime. After 15 minutes, drain the lady’s fingers and wipe the sliced vegetables dry and remove the slime with kitchen towels. Toss them in the olive oil and season with salt, pepper and curry powder (or paprika).

Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or till the tops start to brown. Lower the heat to 120°C and bake for between 90 minutes to two hours – rotating them every 30 minutes – or until they are crispy.

Fresh harvest
By Ivy Soon

IN the narrow strip of land outside her ground floor apartment, my aunt has managed to nurture a vegetable plot. Sometimes the plants thrive, sometimes they wilt away. She plants chillies, mint, pandan and daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander). And there will always be a few lady’s fingers plants, grown from seeds she has sunned. Although the harvest is not all that plentiful, there is enough for our meals from time to time.

We hardly buy lady’s fingers anymore, not since we started enjoying them freshly plucked. They are fresh and tender, and taste much sweeter. So even though we diligently snap away at lady’s fingers’ ends at market stalls to choose the young ones, the bought ones can’t compare to the homegrown ones.

They are especially good lightly steamed and then added to asam pedas with stingray or fish curry, or doused with spicy sambal and dried prawns. We also like them fried with sambal and prawns.

A colleague told me his mother sliced lady’s fingers thinly and deep fried them to sprinkle in curries. So, when I came across a recipe in an Indian cookbook for lady’s fingers pachadi, which is deep-fried lady’s fingers in yoghurt, I just had to try it.

Lady’s fingers are most aromatic when deep fried, and so tasty. But they have to be thinly sliced and fried slowly over medium heat to crisp nicely. This recipe goes well with basmati rice and lamb curry.

Ladys fingers pachadi. RAYMOND OOI/ The Star

Lady’s Fingers Pachadi

8-10 stalks lady’s fingers
1 cup cooking oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1-2 dried chillies
2 stalks curry leaves
250g yoghurt
1 tsp ground ginger
salt to taste

Slice the lady’s fingers thinly.

Heat the cooking oil, and deep fry the lady’s fingers over medium heat till they are golden and crispy. Set aside.

Beat the yoghurt and add the ground ginger and lady’s fingers.

Heat up a tablespoon of the remaining oil, and add the mustard seeds.

Then add the dried curry leaves and dried chillies. Fry till fragrant.

Add immediately into the yoghurt mixture. Season to taste.

Lady's choice
By Jane F. Ragavan

MY favourite recipe for lady’s fingers is too simple to be even called one: Fry whole lady’s fingers until seared and tender, plate up and sprinkle with light soy sauce.

But any other way the vegetable is cooked is fine with me too: in fish curries, stir-fried with chillies, stuffed for yong tau foo – they’re all good.

And I have no problem with slime.

I can’t grow lady’s fingers myself (my own fingers are not green!) and I wish I could find young, tender ones in the market because they taste so much better, but I’ve learnt to live with what I can get.

My recipe is for a gumbo, a dish that is said to have Louisiana Creole origins. It’s often a surf-and-turf combination – a thick, soupy mixture of seafood, chicken and pork sausages – and the essential ingredient, okra (lady’s fingers).

The dish is thickened with roux (flour cooked in butter) as well as naturally by the mucilage in the okra – see, there is some good in slime.

Chicken and okra gumbo is served over rice.

Quick Chicken and Okra Gumbo
Serves 4

2 tbsp oil
3 boneless chicken thighs (about 300g), cut into 3cm slices
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium green capsicum (bell pepper), diced
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp Cajun seasoning (for homemade, see recipe below)
2 cups water
1 vegetable stock cube
½ (400g) tin tomatoes
120g lady’s fingers
Cooked brown rice, to serve

Cajun seasoning (combined)
1 tsp flaky salt
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp sweet paprika
pinch of dried oregano
pinch of dried thyme
½ tsp ground black pepper

Heat up a large saucepan over medium heat. Season the chicken with a little salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook until the outside is lightly browned. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.

Turn down the heat and add butter to the pan. When melted, add the flour. Using a whisk, stir the flour constantly until the mixture starts to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the onion, capsicum, garlic and Cajun seasoning, and sauté for 2 minutes.

Return the chicken to the pan with the water, stock cube and tinned tomatoes; bring to the boil. Cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked and the vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Cut the lady’s fingers into 2.5cm slices and add to the pan. Stir occasionally until the lady’s fingers are cooked, about 5 minutes.

Serve over rice.

Tags / Keywords: Food, Don t Call Me Chef, Okra, lady s fingers, vegetables, chips, gumbo, pachadi, yoghurt, cuisine, cooking

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