Why It Works
- Toasting and grinding whole spices intensify the spices' aroma and flavor.
- Blooming the spices in hot oil improves their flavor.
- Browning the onions imparts a savory sweetness to the dish.
- Tomato paste intensifies the savoriness of the cooking liquid.
One of the first things I bought when it became clear we'd have to isolate at home was a couple of bags of frozen okra, and I don't really know why.
I like okra a lot, sure, but of the many foods that seemed reasonable to stock up on, like beans and pasta and rice—oh god, I didn't buy enough rice—frozen okra doesn't seem like it would be high on the list of any but the most rabid okra-lover.
Anyway, those bags of frozen okra ended up taking up some prime freezer real estate, which meant (some of) the okra had to go, so here's what I made with it.
This is how I usually prepare the frozen okra I buy, which comes as little whole pods (as opposed to pre-sliced). There are fewer seeds, which is kind of sad, but, on the other hand, I've found I prefer cooking the whole mini okra than cut-up mature okra, since the whole pods don't release that mucilaginous stuff—which, don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of in certain contexts but not all the time.
That being said, frozen cut okra would work here, too, as would any frozen vegetables. This is basically just a flavorful sauce in which any kind of vegetable could be cooked to good effect. The only thing to keep in mind is that the vegetables, whatever they are, are best when on the sweeter side, as that sweetness is really nice when paired with the heat from the chili, the spices, and the acidity of the tomatoes. What that means is sweet green beans would work well while a canned or dried bean might be too starchy and not sweet enough for this particular preparation.
The spice mixture I use consists of spices that many, many people might have on hand at any given time, given how ubiquitous coriander and cumin are in a number of different cuisines. If you don't have the cardamom, that's fine—skip it.
For the tomato in the recipe, you should feel free to take advantage of whatever you have: You can use homemade tomato sauce, pizza sauce, or the jarred stuff, but you can also use a tomato purée (like passatta or just some canned whole tomatoes you've blitzed in a blender).
My wife and I ate this okra wrapped in frozen store-bought parathas since I was feeling lazy, but you can make your own parathas, wrap the okra in a pita, or even wrap it in a tortilla (or add it to a quesadilla!). It's also quite good over rice, especially if you have some achaar, or Indian pickles, in your fridge, although something acidic and pickle-y of almost any kind would be good with it, too.
- For the Spice Mix:
- 1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
- 2 pods green cardamom (optional)
- 1 whole dried habanero (optional) (see note)
- For the Okra:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) neutral cooking oil, such as canola
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- Kosher salt
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- One 1-inch piece of ginger (1/2 ounce; 15g), smashed and minced
- 1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
- 1 cup (240ml) water
- 1/2 cup (120ml) tomato sauce, homemade or store-bought (see note)
- One 14-ounce bag frozen okra pods (see note)
- Cilantro leaves and tender stems, for garnish
- Lime wedges, for serving
For the Spice Mixture: Combine cumin, coriander, cardamom (if using), and dried habanero (if using) in a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Toast spices until fragrant, about 2 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove cardamom pods, then place remaining spices in spice grinder or mortar. Using fingers, crack open cardamom pods and remove seeds contained within; discard hull. Add cardamom seeds to other spices. Using spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind spices to fine powder. Set aside.
For the Okra: Heat canola oil in Dutch oven or 3-quart saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions and salt and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until onions are golden and just starting to brown, about 15 minutes.
Stir in garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste, stir and cook until paste has colored the contents of the pot a reddish-brown, about 1 minute. Mound onions, ginger, and garlic in center of pot and add spice mixture directly on top (this is to guard against scorching the spices). Stir together, then cook until spices are bloomed and mixture is very fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add water and stir, scraping bottom of pot with wooden spoon to dislodge any stuck-on bits. Add tomato sauce and okra and stir to break up frozen okra. (Okra pieces should be just submerged in the liquid; if not, add more water to cover them). Bring contents of pot to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until okra is tender, most of excess liquid has cooked off, and okra is thickly coated in sauce, 10-15 minutes. Top with cilantro and serve immediately as part of a larger meal with rice or paratha, passing lime wedges alongside.
Dutch oven or 3-quart saucepan
If you prefer to use a less spicy dried chili pepper, you can substitute one dried chile arbol or dried Kashmiri red chili. You can also omit the chili pepper entirely.
My local stores all carry Montana Frozen Baby Okra, which I like a lot because the okra come as diminutive but whole pods. You can use whatever frozen okra is available to you, but keep in mind cut okra will lend the sauce okra's characteristic sliminess, which isn't a bad thing, necessarily. Whole pods will not.
For the tomato sauce, if you don't have any on hand, you can also use tomato purée, like passatta, or you can blitz a can of whole peeled tomatoes using an immersion blender or blender.
Make-Ahead and Storage
In an airtight container in the refrigerator, this okra dish keeps for about one week.