Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria tops a gumbo-inspired pizza with okra | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

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Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria tops a gumbo-inspired pizza with okra

Who knew the slimy seed pod can mimic mozzarella?


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  • Julia Thiel

The Chef: Jeff Mahin (Stella Barra Pizzeria)
The Challenger: Mike Bagale (Alinea)
The Ingredient: Okra

"I stay away from okra," Jeff Mahin, chef at Stella Barra Pizzeria, said of the ingredient that Mike Bagale (Alinea) had challenged him to make a dish with. "A lot of chefs do."

It's not even that Mahin doesn't like okra—he describes the taste as "a very subtle and sweet grassy, bell-peppery flavor"—but he says that it's challenging to cook with. "It has a really slimy, almost gluey consistency to it when you cut into it. There's really no simple application for it, aside from frying it or putting it in a stew or sauce."

Okra, a flowering plant in the mallow family (the seed pods are the part that's eaten), is popular in the south, where it's often used in gumbo or breaded and fried. Mahin was determined to put okra on a pizza, though he was worried that the seed pod's sliminess would be "weird." So he tried various techniques to eliminate or at least minimize the mucilaginous texture—frying, baking, boiling, dehydrating. He made chips by deep-frying okra and tossing it with aioli and Cajun spices. Then he experimented with cutting okra in half, removing the seeds, pressing it flat and baking it before putting it in a dehydrator. That also yielded chips.

"It was all fun techniques, but the outcome was a crispy okra chip," Mahin said. "It wasn't too exciting. The techniques were exciting, but I think putting it on a pizza was the coolest part, because I've never seen okra on pizza."

Jeff Mahin - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Jeff Mahin

Finally he tried raw okra as a topping, and discovered that it was the most successful application yet. "It should have been our starting point . . . it never was, unfortunately." What he found, Mahin said, was that raw okra "actually sort of mocks the mouthfeel of fresh mozzarella cheese. It has a little bit of that gooeyness to it."

Then he started thinking about what would typically go with okra, which led him to gumbo. He made a black roux as a base for a Parmesan cream sauce, and decided to add creole mustard and house-made andouille sausage as well. "We made this sort of spicy, okra-y, almost southern stew on top of pizza," he said. "The black roux is actually really cool as a sauce. It has such a nutty, unique flavor to it."

Mahin used smoked caciocavallo cheese on the pizza and, once it was baked, topped it with shaved grana padano cheese, watercress, salt, and oil from an okra giardiniera he'd made—essentially pickled okra soaked in olive oil.

He described the finished product as "okra-y. You get the seeds of the okra, you get a little bit of the flavor of the okra, but the sliminess isn't there. . . . It's sort of a spin on a sausage- and-peppers pizza."

The okra pizza will be a special on the menu for the next week or so, Mahin said, and he's experimenting with okra as a cheese substitute for vegan pizza. His goal was for people to be able to taste what he made instead of just reading about it—but "I wouldn't serve it if I wasn't really proud of it."

Okra pizza with black roux, andouille sausage, creole mustard, and smoked caciocavallo cheese - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Okra pizza with black roux, andouille sausage, creole mustard, and smoked caciocavallo cheese

Who's next:

Francis Brennan of Do-Rite Donuts, challenged to make a dish with sumac.

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