John Zucker of Cru Cafe didn't grow up with okra. "Growing up in California, I can honestly say I had never seen okra, and my grandfather was in wholesale produce for 70 years," he says.
Zucker began his cooking career in Colorado, and then studied classical French cooking in Paris. After working at Spago Las Vegas, he cooked "the infamous California Cuisine" at a few different restaurants, nouveau cuisine in Atlanta and Italian food in Savannah.
"Although I've lived in Charleston for 24 years, my schooling is definitely not from the Southern palate," he says. "So when I was approached to put together a recipe for okra, it instantly became a challenge. I wanted to think out of the box, but this box seemed really small. What have I seen over the years? Okra was in gumbo, soups and stews, pickled and fried. Raw is not an option. Where to go from there?"
He ultimately let local ingredients lead him, and ended up with "a new version of an older preparation," featuring buttermilk, benne seeds and fresh peaches alongside the fried okra.
Benne Seed Okra Salad
For the fried okra:
10 okra pods
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons ginger powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon sriracha
Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying
Cut the tops and tips off the okra. Cut okra into half-inch rounds. In a bowl, mix sesame seeds, flour, ginger powder, salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, mix buttermilk, sriracha and sesame oil. Add the cut okra to the buttermilk mix to marinate. Let marinate for 45 minutes.
Add peanut or vegetable oil in a deep saucepan; leave at least 4 inches from the top of the oil to the top of the pan. Do not put too much oil in the saucepan. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Line a sheet tray with paper towels. Using a slotted spoon, add the marinated okra to the flour mixture, trying to not get too much liquid in the flour. Coat the okra generously with the flour mixture. Carefully remove the okra from the flour mixture so that it remains coated. Slowly add the okra directly to the oil; you might have to fry the okra in a few separate batches. Remove the okra from the oil and place on the sheet tray. Salt and pepper the okra as soon as it's removed from the oil.
For the peaches:
2 peaches, small dice
1 tablespoon pickled ginger, chopped fine
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1/4 shallot, chopped fine
1 tablespoon basil, chopped
1 teaspoon lime juice
Add all ingredients to a mixing bowl. Set aside.
For the salad:
Baby kale, rough chop
8 teardrop tomatoes, quartered
1/4 red onion, thinly julienned
2 tablespoons chiffonade basil
2 teaspoons lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Black sesame seeds, for garnish
Add kale, tomato and red onion to a mixing bowl. Carefully add the fried okra. Add the basil, lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Mix with care so okra doesn't lose its coating. Plate the salad and top with peach mixture. Sprinkle black sesame seeds on top.