Because Okra loves heat and Chattanooga is hot in the summer, I decided to plant some in my garden this year. It’s coming in quite nicely so I realized I’d need to remember all the things we can do with Okra.
I was telling a friend about the okra plants, and at the mention of okra, her face took on an amazing transformation. To say it was obvious she didn’t like okra was an understatement. Try to imagine a face that means “eww, icky, ug, and other words” and you get the picture. Since this promised to be an interesting discussion and a bunch of fun, I took it to the next level and asked her why she didn’t like okra. I already figured out the answer, but I wanted to hear her description. Her comment back was so funny and surprising I have to put the words here. I don’t like writing them but you won’t get the message if I don’t. Warning – graphic term coming here. You’ve been warned. She said, and this is verbatum, “because it has the consistency of snot.” Ok, now it’s my turn to go “eww, icky, ug.” What was so funny is this is a very quiet, genteel, southern lady. The word “sn..” (I can’t even write it again) just didn’t sound right coming from her lips.
But that’s exactly what I was expecting to hear. People either love it or hate it, a lot like liver. If people have eaten okra cooked incorrectly then they liken it to slimey substances of all kinds. The word mentioned above is one you hear most often. However, it is this very slimeness that makes okra such a great addition as a thickening agent. Think Gumbo. As it turns out, a term used to describe okra is mucilaginous. Isn’t that a great word. According to Webster, it means sticky or “of, relating to, full of, or secreting mucilage.” Hence the reason people say it feels like – hm – nose droppings. If you boil okra, you get slimey. Period. To avoid this, you need to either fry it, add it to other ingredients, or introduce acids like tomatoes or citric products. That explains why okra is so often paired with stewed tomatoes in the south.
So, what exactly is okra. First off, it’s loaded with valuable nutrients. It is a good source of vitamin C, is low in calories and is fat-free. Doing research for this post, I found out it’s a member of the cotton family. Who knew. According to Wikipedia (one of my favorite sources of information) Okra was discovered near Ethiopia during the 12th century B.C. and was loved by the Egyptians. It spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the seed pods were cooked and the seeds toasted, ground, and served as a coffee substitute. Slave traders brought it to the plantations of the south where it has become a staple in not only southern dishes but also African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, and South American cuisines.
Personally, my favorite way to eat okra is fried. My mom makes it the best. She has a recipe and a process that she goes through to produce great fried okra every time. During a good growing summer, okra is so prolific, people show up on your doorstep with piles much like zucchini, so you learn to find ways to cook, preserve and otherwise use up your stock. What my mom does is to cut up the okra, always a messy task (remember, it’s slimey) and then immediately coating the cut pieces in cornmeal. She says the sliminess makes it easy to coat the pieces – she doesn’t even use an egg wash. Then, she places the cut and coated pieces on a cookie sheet and puts them in the freezer. The purpose is to flash freeze them. After they are frozen, she removes the cookie sheet and places the frozen pieces in plastic bags. This way, when she wants a batch, she simply scoops out a bunch and fries them in very hot oil. Done. And yummy. Every time.
Oh, here’s a tip – don’t wash the pods until you are ready to use them. The water left on the vegetables increases the amount of sliminess. Gosh, I’ve had to spell check all the ways to write slime. How funny is that. I know it sounds yukky to store it unwashed, but okra pods are at the top of the plant and not near the dirt. They tend to be pretty clean unless you spray them with insecticides. Since I don’t use insecticides I won’t have to worry.
If you are going to try to do anything with okra, look for the smaller pods. Okra, like zucchini and squash, if left on the plant, can grow quite large. The larger they are the woodier the pod. Therefore stick to smaller, younger fruit. Classic southern recipes are okra and stewed tomatoes, Gumbo, fried or in Succotash, yet another classic southern dish (maybe in another post), Okra make wonderful pickles. Pickle them in a salty brine – think kosher pickles, but crunchier (and hairier – I haven’t figured out a way to get around that part).
Overall, though, I think fried okra is my favorite and that of many others. When my okra starts coming in, I’ll be using my mom’s technique and also doing some pickling. Should be fun. If you have some good okra ideas, please comment to this post.
Ciao for now, y’all