Fear not the okra pod, friends!
The noble okra (Abelmoschus Esculentus; a relative of hibiscus, cotton & cocoa) is known and loved from Texas to Timbuktu (and in Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, and Thailand, too!) This delicious vegetable finds its way into a variety of soups, stews, and rice dishes; it can also be pickled, or stir fried, or breaded and deep-fried, and its leaves can be eaten cooked or raw in salads.
As a food crop, okra gives tremendous per-acre yields. It tolerates incredible heat and severe drought, survives in soil that can barely sprout a weed, and produces a high-quality oil from its seeds.
But wait – there’s more!
Okra pods are high in protein, dietary fiber, vitamins A & C, niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It’s a great all-around vegetable employed and enjoyed by millions of cooks worldwide.
So…why isn’t okra more popular here in the U.S.?
In a word: slime.
That’s exactly how most folks think about okra, if they think about it at all: that it’s irredeemably slimy – like eels, garden slugs, and Ponzi-scheming ‘investment’ bankers.
And that’s a shame, because properly prepared okra is so very, very good that a bowl of southern-style okra stew or spicy/crispy Indian-style fried okra will make anyone a believer from the very first bite. But, they have to take that first bite!
The mucilaginous (a nicer word than slimy, no?) quality of okra is put to good use as a thickener in dishes like gumbo, but can be eliminated quite easily otherwise. All it takes is 1) handling them gently; 2) keeping them dry; and 3) adding something acidic (depending on the dish)
Okra pods bruise easily, so treat them kindly at all times. Start with the least blemished pods available; brownish-black spots indicate age and rough handling. Choose fresh, small okra (about as thick as your pinky) if you can find them. The larger they get, the seedier and more mucilaginous they become.
(Larger pods can also have tiny nettle-like spines which soften immediately during cooking, but can irritate skin during handling and cause considerable itching. Gloves are recommended.)
Contact with water is what activates the mucilage inside, so make sure to rinse and gently towel-dry the pods, then let them air dry before you cut them. You can also just wipe them with a dry cloth if you want to save time.
(Some people coat the pods with white or cider vinegar, about 1/2 cup per pound, and let them sit for 20 - 30 minutes, then rinse and dry before using. I haven’t tried this yet but it sounds like it would work.)
If you are using them whole, trim the stem down just to the top of the cap; the cap is edible and softens when cooked. If the pods are large, you may have to trim the top layer of the cap to remove the tough bits. If you are cutting them, use a sharp, dry knife on a dry cutting surface. Cut them no more than about half an inch thick to promote even cooking.
A very simple preparation, one that will give you a taste of the possibilities, is to saute whole or sliced okra in oil over medium heat until tender and lightly browned, then sprinkle with a little coarse salt. Nothing more is needed.
You can take sliced okra, dip it in beaten egg, dredge it in seasoned cornmeal, and briefly deep fry it for a life-changing experience that will make you wonder what unlucky star you were born under that you missed out on eating something so phenomenal for so long.
The addition of tomatoes, lemon or lime juice, or any type of vinegar to an okra dish will provide the acidity that precludes the formation of that pesky mucilage. You can use fresh or canned tomatoes and frozen, pre-cut okra (check your grocer’s freezer!) to make a quick and soul-satisfying okra stew: just saute a cup each of chopped onion and bell pepper in olive oil with some minced garlic, then add 2 cups chopped or stewed tomatoes (with their juice) and 3 cups okra.
Season with a little marjoram or thyme, and simmer for about 20 minutes until okra is tender. Add salt & fresh ground black pepper to taste, along with a pinch of cayenne or a couple of dashes of hot pepper sauce. And don’t be surprised (or feel guilty) if you find yourself eating all of it in one sitting: it’s really good – and it’s good for you!
One more thing you need to know: don’t cook okra in cast iron or copper pots, as a chemical reaction will turn the pods a ghastly black. The flavor won’t be affected, but the visual appeal sure will!
There are so many exciting okra recipes out there for you to try from a broad range of the world’s cuisines. Armed with the straight dope about this undeservedly maligned vegetable, you can now boldly reach for those tender fresh okra pods when you see them at your local market, confident in the knowledge that you won’t get ’slimed.
And that’s always a good feeling.
Please join us tomorrow to read our new recipe for delicious Fried Okra Mac and Cheese.
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