Every time I open one of my grandma’s cookbooks, I’m back in her kitchen. I swear I can smell fried mullet when I turn the pages. Sometimes scraps of paper fall out with notes from my grandpa: “Mom, Gone to pick up Fred. Love, Dad.” I treasure these more than the actual recipes. My grandma, Polly Summerlin Moore, never followed recipes anyway. She might look at them for ideas or to jog her memory, but then she closed the book and cooked.
I started helping her in the kitchen as soon as I could stand on a barstool. By helping, I mean I ate cookies and listened to her stories about growing up in St. Lucie Village.
Looking back, all her stories were about food. Her house was surrounded by over a dozen fruit trees. She and her brother climbed them and ate to their hearts’ content. She fished in the river with her father. She ate juicy “turpentine” mangoes with her cousins, which gave them all rashes. She weeded her mother’s vegetable garden and popped radishes in her mouth when no one was looking.
One of her favorite garden vegetables was okra. It’s a beautiful plant with flowers that look like its relative, hibiscus. It thrives in Florida gardens, even in the hottest months of the year. Grandma taught me to pick pods no bigger around than your thumb, because they’re the most tender.
She usually stewed them with tomatoes and onions, but she also taught me that okra, like pretty much everything, tastes best fried. It was not unusual for her to have two electric fryers going at once. I watched her slide the okra into the hot oil. We waited while the nuggets bobbed and sizzled, quickly turning golden brown. She’d hand me bites on paper towels when they were cool enough to eat. It’s such a delicious contrast between the crunchy cornmeal coating and the warm, tender okra inside.
For those of us without an electric fryer or two, deep-frying can be a daunting task, but you can make a batch of okra fries in a cast-iron skillet without a ton of oil or too much fuss. I slice the pods lengthwise, like fries, perfect for dipping in a spicy rémoulade. It’s an update to a Southern classic, and I think my grandma would approve.
1 pound okra
High-heat oil, such as canola or peanut, for frying
1 ½ cups fine cornmeal
½ cup flour
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. capers, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. pickle relish
2 tbsp. diced chives
2 tsp. hot sauce
Trim dried stems from the okra, leaving the caps. Slice larger pods lengthwise into quarters; smaller pods can be sliced in half.
In a large, deep-sided cast-iron skillet fitted with a deep-frying thermometer, heat about 2 inches of oil to 350°F over medium heat.
In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, cornstarch and seasonings. Pour the buttermilk in a separate bowl.
Working in batches, toss a handful of okra into the cornmeal mixture. Shake off excess and place okra in the buttermilk, then transfer back to the cornmeal mixture. Toss the slices, making sure they’re evenly coated. Allowing the okra to sit for a minute or two in the cornmeal mixture will help it stick.
Carefully drop each slice of okra into the hot oil. Do not overcrowd the pan. Fry about 3-4 minutes, turning as needed, until evenly golden brown. Transfer to a platter lined with paper towels. Repeat with remaining okra.
Serve hot with rémoulade for dipping.
For the rémoulade: Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Chill until ready to serve.
Sept. 18, 2022