Cook On: Lunchbox Okra

By Mary Ann Ebner

A lunchbox went missing around the house over the summer and nobody seemed to notice. Who inventories these things anyway? They’re usually tucked into the cabinet that spills over with reusable water bottles and storage containers. In our small kitchen where we put every inch of cabinet space to use, it’s often advisable not to open the doors too quickly lest you risk spending a few minutes pushing items back into place.

With September on its way and the back-to-school routine approaching, it was time to search the kitchen. Younger kids may advance a grade with a new lunchbox to match their maturing personalities, but our older sons were definitely set to reuse the lunchboxes we purchased before the start of last school year.

Searching the kitchen high and low proved helpful in recovering a box of filters for the water pitcher and a stack of misplaced storage lids, but it was otherwise a waste of energy. No red lunchbox to be found. It had made its way out of my son’s backpack sometime in early June but managed to find a concealed spot to rest for the entire summer.

Okra pieces and pods

Okra pieces and pods

He finally found the lunchbox stashed under a stack of papers and notebooks under the desk in his bedroom, and when he handed it over, he also passed a warning of what was still zipped inside: a thermos, his food jar that keeps a host of edibles hot or cold.

I couldn’t guess what had been packed for lunch a couple of months back, but when I removed the lid from the vacuum-insulated jar, I found the remains of a steamed broccoli and onion medley accompanied by a predictably powerful stench.

The experience hasn’t turned me away from packed lunches, and a thermos makes it easy to vary the menu with rice, beans and even chilled fruit salads. While we have moved beyond the lasting odor in the found thermos, it may still be too soon to pack broccoli for the back-to-school lunch break this year. But okra steps up as another midday meal that holds its form and flavor in an insulated container.

The vegetable — fabulous in a home-cooked gumbo, brushed with olive oil and grilled or starring in a curried Indian stew — adds a tasty texture and crunch to lunch. Okra tends to fall into the slimy category with all its glutinous properties, and that’s one reason why it thickens soups with a creamy consistency.

Lunchbox okra

Lunchbox okra

Cooking okra quickly on high heat near the end of a recipe’s preparation can help minimize the stickiness of many varieties. If slime still poses a challenge, try throwing the okra pods in a water bath diluted with vinegar for 10 minutes (but pat dry before cooking) to keep the okra from becoming stickier in texture once pods are cut into pieces.

If you’ve been to Round Up Texas BBQ just outside Cold Spring, chances are you’ve sampled their crispy deep-fried okra. They sell it as a traditional Texas side dish — breaded and fried to a golden brown and served steamy hot. It’s hardly possible to stop in without trying a serving (or two). Whether you dredge okra in cornmeal, spike it with Creole seasoning or bread pods with buttermilk and flour, the vegetable can stand alone.

Fried okra served Texas-style at Cold Spring's Round Up Texas BBQ

Fried okra served Texas-style at Cold Spring’s Round Up Texas BBQ

It also shows off its versatility as an addition to casseroles or when pan-seared and used as a salad ingredient. I haven’t tried to replicate Round Up Texas BBQ’s okra and don’t plan to anytime soon. It’s a rare treat to indulge in deep-fried foods, and we make it a family outing to drop in and order their crusty okra when our home kitchen closes.

The okra recipe shared here lets the vegetable stand out while the backdrop of eggs makes it a meal. Scrambling the eggs with crumbled crackers produces a hearty base to allow the vegetables to shine. With crackers folded into the mix, there’s not much need for additional salt, so only add salt to your liking.

Try the dish for brunch, and if you prefer a version with a little kick, add a splash of salsa picante to the egg and milk mixture before scrambling. There’s truly no need for cheese — call it done as is — but a sprinkling of shredded sharp cheddar finishes the combination perfectly with a rich result. No guarantees, but the lunchbox thermos will probably come home clean.

Lunchbox Okra

Makes 4 servings

2 cups saltine crackers, crumbled

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon chili powder

pinch of kosher salt (optional)

5 eggs

¼ cup milk

2 tablespoons canola oil

5 cups fresh okra pods, cut in ¼-inch to ½-inch pieces

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Mix crackers and spices. Set aside. Lightly beat eggs and milk in shallow dish. In a frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil over medium heat. Add egg mixture to pan and scramble 2 to 3 minutes. Add crackers and spices, mixing thoroughly, and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from pan and keep warm. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to pan and cook okra pieces on high heat 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Return egg mixture to hot pan and mix with okra. Sprinkle with cheese, if using. Serve immediately or spoon into a lunchbox thermos and enjoy later.

Photos by M.A. Ebner

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