Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ode to Okra

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 Here's a previously unpublished piece about our favorite Southern vegetable.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.


Joanna said...

I've only ever had okra once, the worst thing in a rather disgusting vegetable curry. It put me off, I thought forever. It's always been about the only thing I "know" I don't like. But now, your description of okra as half way between asparagus and aubergine - well, I'm off to the shops, they are my two favourite vegetables. I'm holding you personally responsible if I STILL don't like it ;)


Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, sorry to hear about your troubles with okra, truly a noble pod. It may come down to individual sensitivities. For people particularly averse to goo, I recommend frying okra. No goo there. Personally, the only issue I've ever had was following a recipe that recommended okra raw in a salad. Now that was more goo than even I could handle. Otherwise, I don't see the goo: I love smothered okra, or sauteed with onion, corn, tomatoes. Okra in a gumbo is the ultimate in Creole cooking. Sublime.

Daphne said...

I love okra! My mom is from SC and dad from NC.
Maternal grandmother cooked okra all different ways.
Paternal grandfather said if you ate okra, your socks would fall down.
Nothing better than okra cooked with stewed tomatoes, served over rice with (not sweet!) cornbread on the side.
Finally, a few years ago, my mom, who now lives in Southern MD, made adorable Santa Claus Xmas ornaments by painting faces on pointy-side-up okra pods that had gone "woody" and pasting little cotton beards on them.
Cheers - Daphne in Takoma Park, MD

Rob said...

Okra GOOD. It's usually pretty cheap at the Indian grocery near my house too. Hm, maybe I'll run out there tomorrow.

T said...

My aunt down in Halifax Co., VA, swears that something in tomatoes cuts the sliminess--any real corroboration to that? I myself hardly notice--I love the stuff slimy or not, though I don't think I'd have much use for it raw in a salad either.

Ed Bruske said...

Daphne, you certainly have the correct okra pedigree. Loving the image of the okra Santas.

Rob, not GOOD, but DAMN GOOD. I do wish we had an Indian grocery around here. Outside the farmers market, the best okra I ever saw around here was in an Indian grocery.

T, theories abound about how to cut the sliminess. But like you, I've never been bothered. I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Tisha said...

My favorite thing about growing okra is its beautiful flowers. I wish I could grow it now; it's so hard to find small pods that haven't been grown to woodiness.

Ed Bruske said...

Tisha, are you somewhere where okra doesn't grow? No place for a garden? I'll bet you could get okra to grow in a pot. Being related to the hibiscus, it does make lovely flowers.

WashingtonGardener said...

Okra is in our current issue as a "Hot Southern Veggie." I think I'm lucky that my experiences with it have been relatively pleasant.

WashingtonGardener said...

Okra is in our current issue as a "Hot Southern Veggie." I think I'm lucky that my experiences with it have been relatively pleasant.

Pragma said...

I have been growing Okra here in Arizona (of course it loves our hot summers) for a few years using a seed variety that I have no idea where I got from. The Okra trees (yes, not plants) are giant sized 10-12 feet and pods are about 6-10 inches. At the peak of production pods must be harvested twice a day or else they will be too mature. At peak I harvest about 2 lbs twice a day. Has anyone come across this variety of Okra? What is it called? Origin? Thanks.
P.S. I save seeds from year to year and will be glad to share with anyone interested for mailing cost.