Happy End of the Year. It’s that time of looking back at all the highs and lows of 2017. Best-ofs and worst-ofs. Instead of offering my take on the best food books of the year, or ranting again about Gifts Not To Give the Cook, I wanted to try to put a positive spin on one of the worst moments in dining of 2017, according to Eater’s Senior Food Critic, Robert Sietsema. Reviewing his list, you might have stopped, agape, at the photo of okra pods pointed upright in a pool of creamy peanut butter. This was perhaps one of the most unappetizing food images, let alone dishes, of the year, at least judging from my Facebook friends’ comments (as one put it, “Okra and peanut butter… just yuck.”) It is the food equivalent of seeing an elephant seated casually atop a sparrow. It doesn’t make much sense. But I wanted to find the sense in it, somehow. I wanted to give this strange combination a second chance.
This year especially, many of us might be wishing that a lot of things had turned out differently. That we’d have a different President. That we’d spoken up about bad behavior sooner. That we’d bought Bitcoin a couple years ago. Many of us might be resolving to do better next year, to make 2018 a year of less regrets. To reverse some of the downs of 2017—and maybe, to try and see the silver lining in some.
I was determined that there must be one in this unlikely peanut butter-okra dish. The dish, according to Sietsema, was served at Alley 41 in Flushing, from its bar menu. It appeared to be unseasoned, steamed okra with just peanut butter.
It needed help—a lot. So, thinking along the lines of a tangy Southeast Asian satay dipping sauce, I mixed up some creamy peanut butter with rice vinegar, soy sauce and a few dabs of chili sauce—the Vietnamese staple sambal olek, for its garlicky bite. A sprinkle of sugar and a tasty sauce was done in seconds.
Then for the okra, I decided to deep-fry. Once crispy, the whole pods could be eaten head to tip and be sturdy, French fry-size vessels for the dipping sauce. I coated them all liberally with sweet potato starch, a “secret weapon” ingredient of Taiwanese pantries that creates an ultra-crunchy crust on fried chicken. After a quick fry in very hot oil, a sprinkle of salt and white pepper was dusted on to finish. A great snack on its own, and fairly healthy despite being deep-fried.
Now that deep-fried Brussels sprouts has become a de-facto staple on many New York-based bar menus, I’m wondering what other vegetables might join its fray in the coming years. Will okra become the next trendy vegetable? Who knows? But steaming the pods and serving them simply with peanut butter is not a good way to start them on that path. Okra deserves better than that.
And we can do better than it. So let’s do right by okra with peanut butter next year. And let’s do a lot more good in 2018, period.
Fried Okra with Peanut Satay Sauce
(makes about 4 finger-food snack-size servings)
1 lb whole okra (about 24 pods)
1/2 cup sweet potato starch (or substitute with potato starch, or just all-purpose flour)
salt and pepper (preferably white pepper)
neutral oil for frying, such as canola, peanut or vegetable
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1-2 teaspoons chili sauce (preferably sambal olek)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Heat enough oil in a pan to cover at least 2 inches, or to submerge the okra. While it’s heating, beat the egg in a small bowl and add equal parts water. Spread the starch or flour on a plate along with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Dip the okra pods in the egg wash first, then coat thoroughly in the starch.
Once the oil is very hot, deep-fry the okra, working in batches so as not to crowd the pot. Turn each pod once to fry each side to golden-brown (about 1 minute per side), then transfer immediately to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle the fried okra with salt and pepper.
Combine the peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, chili sauce and sugar in a bowl and whisk. Increase the portions of any of the ingredients to your own taste. Serve the fried okra hot with the dipping sauce immediately.
(for about 4 appetizer-sized servings)
1 lb whole okra: $4.00
1 egg: $0.30
1/2 cup sweet potato starch: $0.50
1/4 cup peanut butter: $0.50
2 tablespoons rice vinegar: $0.25
1 tablespoon soy sauce: $0.20
2 teaspoons chili sauce: $0.25
about 2 cups vegetable oil: $1.00
Six brownie points: For being a crispy, deep fried bar-snack-appropriate side or starter, this is a pretty wholesome one. It’s purely okra, which are packed with vitamins and minerals like Vitamin K, Vitamin C and calcium, along with a simple sauce whose main ingredient is peanut butter, giving you more protein. So snack away.
Five maple leaves: It’s not quite okra season (we had the last local pods around September here in the Northeast), but for some reason my corner bodega carries it year-round. But you can take comfort in getting your greasy-food fix here without having to eat meat, and getting some protein from wholesome peanuts instead, too.