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Published September 08, 2009, 06:35 PM

Okra: Its time has come

Southern delicacy gains popularity because of versatility
Okra long has been popular in the South, a staple of Creole cooking, and is one of the main ingredients in gumbo. It originally was brought to the U.S. from Africa, either by the French who settled in Louisiana or West African slaves.

By: Jeff Tiedeman, Grand Forks Herald

A couple of years ago, the magazine Art Culinaire proposed the creation of an okra appreciation society.

I don’t know if the plan ever succeeded, but if it did, it would have my support.

Okra long has been popular in the South, a staple of Creole cooking, and is one of the main ingredients in gumbo. It originally was brought to the U.S. from Africa, either by the French who settled in Louisiana or West African slaves. (A Creole has been described as a New Orleans native whose heritage includes the Native Americans, French, Spanish, Africans, Italians and others who settled there.)

But these days, okra is becoming increasingly popular and can be found in supermarkets (usually frozen) or greengrocers across the country, despite the fact that many find the sticky quality of the veggie less than appealing.

I discovered okra about 15 years ago. The reason for my initial planting escapes my memory, but I do recall having a good crop. I used the pods in gumbo as well as sauteed with other veggies such as tomatoes and peppers. (Okra has a unique flavor and texture, its taste best described as falling between that of asparagus and eggplant.)

The results were so tasty that I decided to plant it again the next year. It was then I learned that bigger isn’t better. Okra is best harvested when the pods are 3 inches or less in length. They reach that size about a week after flowering. (Once okra matures, it becomes fibrous and tough and can’t be eaten.)

After an absence of several years, I sowed okra again the past two springs and have had tremendous success. This summer, I’ve sauteed the pods with peppers, onion and tomatoes as well as making two kinds of gumbo — one with chicken and sausage, the other with shrimp. I also put together a corn, okra and tomato dish found in my Fannie Farmer Cookbook that was quite appealing. (See recipe at www.grandforks herald. com/ event/ tag/group/Features/tag/food/.)

Nutritionally, okra is a bargain. It’s low in calories (38 in a 3½-ounce serving) and also a good source of vitamin C, folic acid, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and calcium. It’s also very high in dietary fiber (more than 4 grams per 1 cup cooked).

If you should decide to give okra a try, here are a couple of cooking tips:

n Do not cook in a cast iron or aluminum pot, or the vegetable will darken. This is harmless but looks rather unappetizing.

n You can blanch okra you intend to serve cold in a salad or before stir-frying. Drop whole okra pods in a large pot of boiling water. If serving okra cold, cool it in a bowl of ice water. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

n Okra can be boiled when you want to serve it simply, with a seasoning or sauce. Cook whole okra pods in about 1 inch of boiling water; boil just until crisp-tender. Cooking time: five to 10 minutes.

n Place a pound of whole okra, rinsed but not dried, in a covered microwaveable dish. Cooking time: six minutes.

n If sauteeing, first cook some onions and garlic in a little vegetable oil, then add whole or sliced okra and saute. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

n Brief steaming keeps okra very crisp. Place pods in a steamer and cook over boiling water. Cooking time: three to six minutes.

The thing I like best about cooking with okra is that it is a natural thickening agent, just like cornstarch. So, it’s perfect for soups and stews.

I’d call that appreciation.

Tiedeman is food editor at the Herald. Reach him at 780-1136 or toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or e-mail at jtiedeman@gfherald.com.

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