Cookbook author Mindy Toomay's blog about eating for health, cooking with spirit, and celebrating life in northern California. Here she dishes up food rants and raves, recipes, and plenty of kitchen wisdom.

By your own efforts, waken yourself, watch yourself, and live joyfully.
-- The Dhammapada

Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?
-- Peter Mayle


Okay, okra

This is it, the season of okra, the time when those strange-looking plants produce their strange-looking pods and we can partake of their succulence. If you are not fond of this vegetable, you really must give it another chance. There's a lot about it to love.

For instance, that slime it produces. Oh, you say that's exactly what you HATE about okra? I suggest you get hip to that stringy secretion and let it work for you. In a soup preparation, like gumbo, the okra slime is a very efficient little thickening agent. In a saute combining sliced okra with fresh corn kernels and chopped fresh tomatoes -- other harvest season specialties -- it creates a great consistency if you also throw in a handful of cornmeal to soak up the slime.

Yesterday I found beautiful okra at the market for a reasonable price. Tonight there was a decided chill in the air, so I decided on gumbo. I have heard that "gumbo" actually means "okra" in some African dialect, so naturally my culinary imagination traveled in that direction.

And yes, I mean vegetarian gumbo. If you are a true Cajun, you will think this idea very unappealing, but bear with me. Also, it's a lowfat gumbo, another strange thought if you hail from Louisiana. Of course, the key to controlling the fat is not to include meat (duh!) and to use a dry, rather than wet, roux.

Roux is the browned flour that helps thicken and flavor a pot of gumbo. Southern cooks brown the flour in lots and lots of vegetable oil until they have a dark and nasty-looking (but apparently quite tasty) sludge. I simply put a few tablespoons of regular all-purpose flour in a dry pan over medium heat and stir it around while it browns for a few minutes, turning a medium shade of tan. Simple and it really works. It adds a special depth of flavor to the broth as it -- along with the gumbo -- thickens things up.

I used tofu and garbanzos as the "meaty" elements in my gumbo tonight, and of course used the traditional file powder and Tabsaco sauce to season things up. See the photo for the aromatics (onion, celery, bell pepper, carrot) I sauteed in olive oil before adding the browned flour, file powder, and a good quantity of veggie broth. Then I put in some garlic and bay leaves and a small can of diced tomatoes, slightly drained, plus salt and pepper. Brought it to a simmer, then added the tofu cubes , garbanzos, and okra. Simmered for about 30 minutes, until everything was nice and thick and smelling really good, then added several dashes of Tabasco (you can always add more to the bowl, so if you're not big on spicy foods, be conservative).

Meanwhile, cook up a pot of brown or white rice. Put small amounts of rice in bowls and ladle on the steaming gumbo. Top with some chopped parsley or cilantro, if you like.

Apologies to those of you who have been cooking up a traditional gumbo for decades. I'm not saying this version is better than your spicy, oily, sausage- and chicken- and seafood-laden recipe. It's just different, and quite tasty in its own right. And just maybe a little better on the arteries. And I get to call it gumbo because it's all about okra.

Blessings and bon appetit!


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