During state fair season, fried food always assumes its exalted status in the culinary world: Tempting otherwise healthy eaters with crunchy textures and nutty aromas. Or, making headlines with the latest and greatest experiments in greasy goodness. Fried Pineapple Upside Down Cake anyone? You can still get your fill of wacky fried foods at the ultimate in competitive frying, the State Fair of Texas. The Big Tex Choice Awards for 2011 Most Creative goes to Fried Bubblegum.
As much as I love a freshly battered and fried corn dog, I will happily skip fried butter or packets of fried Coca-Cola. I generally think we've already discovered the foods best suited to frying -- Foods that are complemented rather than masked by oil and a crispy coating, like potatoes, chicken, green tomatoes, sweet doughs. One of my favorite fried classics is okra. They have a characteristic "goo" when slowly cooked that is unappealing to some (although I love its ability to thicken gumbos). But, when briefly fried, their bright green pods reach an optimal state of tenderness.
When choosing okra, look for vibrant green pods that are 3 inches or less in length. Larger, more mature pods tend to be woody. It's possible to simply slice okra and use their natural moisture to stick to seasoned fine ground cornmeal. This will give you a very thinly coated fried okra. Here, I briefly dunk the okra pieces in buttermilk for a thicker layer of cornmeal to cling to.
1 pound okra
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cup fine ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to season
Trim the tops and bottoms of okra pods and slice into 1/2-inch pieces. Place buttermilk in a shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, combine cornmeal with paprika, pepper and salt. Briefly toss a handful of okra pieces in buttermilk, shake off excess and toss in cornmeal mixture until well coated. Transfer to a plate and repeat as necessary. Refrigerate for 30 minutes for coating to set.
Fill a large cast iron pan or heavy-bottomed saucepan with oil to a depth of about 3/4-inch. Heat to 325°F. When oil is hot, sprinkle an even layer of okra in pan, don't overcrowd. Cook until golden brown and crispy on the outside, turning gently several times. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet and sprinkle with salt while still hot.