Okra was a bit of a disappointment for me this year. I planted a different variety and it never reached the height of last year's crop. The pods seem to go woody before they are big enough to eat. But we do love okra. Here's a previously unpublished piece about our favorite Southern vegetable.
My guide to okra was none other than legendary food writer Craig Claiborne.
I mean his recipe in the New York Times Cookbook, of course. I’m from Chicago. What did I know from Craig Claiborne and okra?
There was only one problem. Once I tasted okra, I was hooked: I could not walk into a supermarket without checking the price of okra. Call it a passion, call it a fetish. Call it a willful disregard for normal. I became so attuned to the going rate for okra, I could give you the time based on the latest quote.
$4.99 a pound. A bit pricey. Must be January or February.
$3.59 per pound. Things are starting to thaw. March.
$2.99. I’m dusting off last year’s okra recipes. We’re in April.
$1.49. Memorial Day! Time for barbecue and a side of okra.
You’re thinking, Boy, this guy is weird. Well, not so weird as okra
This is a plant that can’t decide whether it’s a vegetable or a tree. This is the Yao Ming of the mallow family, growing to heights of 10 feet.
Some varieties of okra plants are so thick with prickly hairs, harvesters have to wear gloves to avoid getting stung. When they do start picking the fruit—a five-sided, pornographic looking green pod—the plant goes berserk and starts making pods like there’s no tomorrow.
The pods contain seeds the size of bird shot and, like something out of the movie Alien, only grow bigger—up to nearly a foot—if they’re not picked. Even more like something out of the movie Alien, when you cut into a pod it oozes a mucilaginous goo that won’t exactly burn a hole through the hull of your spacecraft, but does turn some people off. Other people think it’s just perfect for thickening soups and stews such as gumbo.
More fun okra trivia:
Okra loves hot, humid climates (but then, who doesn’t?), and just picks up steam when lesser flora are swooning in the heat. This may be why okra—originally from Africa--is so popular south of the Mason Dixon Line, as well as in the Caribbean, Brazil, India and Southeast Asia.
Okra tastes somewhere between asparagus and eggplant, even though its closest cousin is cotton. Okra also is a hibiscus and will, if left to its own devices, burst into ornamental flowers perfectly suitable for your home garden before it tries to take over with its strange pods.
The goo in gumbo is not from outer space, but rather a simple convergence of acetylated acidic polysaccharide and galacturonic acid common in mallow plants. But, you probably knew that. Trust me: It’s perfectly harmless.
Okra consistently ranks near the top of America’s least favorite vegetables, which may explain why the okra you see in supermarkets is often shriveled and covered with brown blotches. When fresh, okra is bright green, smooth and blemish free. Check your local farmer’s market or an ethnic market that appreciates good okra. Choose pods 3 to 4 inches in length. Bigger pods are tougher.
Craig Claiborne’s okra recipe called for marinating the pods in tarragon vinegar before cooking them in a skillet with red pepper flakes. Equally good is okra is stewed with corn, onions, green pepper and tomatoes. And you can hardly make an authentic gumbo without okra to thicken it (though some cooks try.)
Meanwhile, Southerners will jump through rings of fire to get fried okra. Simply trim the stem ends from the okra and cut the pods into 1/2-inch slices. Dredge these first in buttermilk, then in flour seasoned with salt. Fry the pieces in 360-degree oil, as you would French fries or onion rings. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.