The girl can cook... for 12,000 hungry foodies!

Candace Conley gives us tips for making good old-fashioned fried okra before she heads off to represent Oklahoma at Flavored Nation.


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Candace Conley

A couple of weeks ago, Candace Conley got a call out of the blue. It was David Rosengarten, famed Food Network personality.

“I knew who he was,” says Conley. “I have his cookbooks.”

The James Beard Award-winner was searching for an Oklahoma chef for a brand new foodie extravaganza, Flavored Nation, to be held in St. Louis on October 27-29. Conley had come highly recommended by Kansas City-based food celeb Jenny Vergara. That recommendation was enough to secure Conley the spot representing Oklahoma at the event, which will feature a chef from all 50 states.

“It was a total surprise,” says Conley. But now, she must prepare to offer attendees at the national event an authentic taste of Okie cooking via an iconic dish: fried okra.

“I thought it was kind of inspired,” Conley says of the event organizers’ dish decision. “The food has to be iconic, but also particularly interesting.”

Louisiana will be represented by gumbo; Texas by chicken fried steak. Connecticut and Maine will be throwing down with their regional variation of the lobster roll, truly a foodie feud for the ages. Flavored Nation will continue to release its full list of state foods and participating chefs as the event nears.

Fried okra was named as part of the Official State Meal in 1988 by the legislature, but its popularity in the region is somewhat harder to nail down historically. Conley points to the sheer resilience of the plant as the main factor: “It grows like a weed once you get it started.” It’s easy to imagine why it became pervasive in the homestead kitchens of early Oklahoma.

You may associate fried okra with your grandma’s cooking rather than a Michelin-rated restaurant, but that doesn’t mean this simple dish is easy or ubiquitous.

“It’s distinctive; you have to know how to cook it,” says Conley, whose mother often cooked the dish for her family growing up. “But it’s not just country fare, as people are discovering.”

Despite its growing visibility, Conley is taking a no-frills approach: “straight up, nothing fancy-schmancy. It’s comfort food.”

I’m sure her mother would be proud.

To make fried okra like her ma used to, Conley doesn’t deep fry or use a batter, like you might with chicken. Above all else, she stresses that the secret to good fried okra is to hit the sweet spot between undercooked and overcooked — which results in the dreaded sliminess that continues to turn people off to the dish. Conley is a firm believer in eyeballing it, but offers this basic recipe:

 

Candace Conley’s Fried Okra

 

1 pound of fresh okra

½ cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon of cayenne

1-2 teaspoons of salt, to taste

Crisco

 

Heat Crisco in a skillet until shimmering. Slice the okra into “coins.” Immediately dredge in the mixture of cornmeal, cayenne and salt. Fry okra in the skillet until the outside is crispy, but the inside is soft. (this is just going to take some trial and error for us mere mortals; for Conley, the timing is just second nature.) Boiling, battering or trying to fry okra whole are all one-way tickets to slimy-town.

 

A veteran of the entertainment-cooking industry, Conley isn’t worried about getting the recipe right or having enough staff. The main concern is simply ordering enough ingredients for the three-day tasting feast. She expects to use between 60-75 pounds of okra for the event.

Conley says the being chosen as the only chef to represent Oklahoma is exciting, and the event itself is already shaping up to be buzz-worthy, with media and celebrities in abundance. “It’s the inaugural year of the event, and the organizers are really killing it.”

Conley plans to save some room for the other 49 distinctive dishes on docket for Flavored Nation. “I’d like to try them all!” Conley says. “There are some things I’ve never heard of — the food from South Dakota and Minnesota is characteristic of a different world.”

South Dakota will be bringing chislic (deep-friend, salted red meat cubes) and Minnesota will be bringing hotdish (a meat-and-potatoes-type casserole) to the proverbial table. Call me an old-fashioned Okie girl, but I think I’ll stick with the fried okra.

Visit www.flavorednation.com for more information about the event promising “a taste of every state.” Road trip, anyone?

 

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