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Crispy Caper and Polenta Salad

fig saladOk, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.

This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town.  Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.

In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.

However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.

polenta cubesI tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day. Read more

Deep Fried Okra

Recently in my travels round Brixton, I keep coming across Americans who now live here. It’s testament to what a great area Brixton is that many of them say it’s the best neighbourhood they’ve ever lived in and my recipe here is partly inspired by them. But its mainly inspired by my determination not to shudder slightly whenever I see piles of okra on the stalls in the market. I’ve only ever eaten it once when I was a child and was singularly unimpressed by its slimy texture and have avoided it ever since. But encouraged by African friends who consider it a kitchen staple and those Americans who all responded affirmatively when I mentioned it, I’ve decided to give you my melting pot take on it and like the good Belfast girl I am, fry it. I mean, what food doesn’t taste even better when fried?

I’m branching out a bit here and using cornmeal instead of a batter. I’ve only recently discovered this as a coating for things and can’t get enough of its crunchy crispness, preferably dipped in something spicy and delicious. A firey salsa made with the super sweet vine tomatoes that are perfectly in season right now, some smoked garlic and a burst of red onion would take this from side dish to star attraction at dinner, especially with an ice cold beer to accompany it…

Fried Okra:

  • about 200g of okra, cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 200g yellow cornmeal (also called polenta if you’re looking for it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder/cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • seasoning as required.
  • vegetable oil for frying

Get your oil on to heat, making sure you only fill your pan a third full of oil so it can’t bubble over. You want it hot but not scorching.

When buying the okra, make sure the pods are nice and furry and not split at all. Wash them and dry them well. Cut each pod in roughly three pieces. Then dip the pieces into the beaten egg before putting them into the cornmeal and making sure they are well coated. Don’t hang about, do both dippings quickly and put them into the oil immediately to cook. Give them about 2-3 minutes each side or until the okra and the coating both go golden.

Serve immediately, preferably dipped into a little hot sauce and salt. We had them on the side of some curry goat, but these fried okra will go with anything and make a great gluten free vegetarian dish. If like me, you were nervous about the slime potential, don’t be. Fried up like this, it’s a good balance between soft and crunchy and I surprised myself by having seconds, as did my American dining companion…

Okra pods

*An edited version of this post originally appeared at Brixton Blog.