I was shopping for green tomatoes at the farmers market over the weekend and though I struck out with the tomatoes I couldn't resist the okra. I bought a heaping pint of pods just on general principles--if the okra is ripe, you should eat some.
Fresh okra is a joy to behold. The pods are unlike any other vegetable with their sharp ridges and phallic pointiness. Fresh okra is unmistakably smooth and bright green (unless you are looking at the burgundy variety) and free of any blemishes. It should also be soft to the squeeze. Any hardness and the okra is likely past its prime, woody and inedible.
It was such a shock seeing the okra at Whole Foods a couple of days later. The pods were shriveled and covered with sunken brown blotches. This is okra that is probably a couple of weeks old already and not worth a plug nickel. If I'd had an extra ten minutes, I would have tracked down the produce manager just to ask why he even bothered to display this nasty old okra. It shouldn't even be offered for sale, and Whole Foods should be ashamed to be seen with it.
I cooked my farmers market okra last night, turning to an old stand-by recipe: smothered okra. I first saw this recipe in Jessica Harris' book on traditional Carribean cooking, Sky Juice and Flying Fish. This is one of those recipes that almost guarantees success every time. The flavors of onion, green bell pepper, okra, tomato and corn all meld perfectly together, seasoned with just salt and pepper. It always comes out tasting delicious, and I've never detected any problem of sliminess with the okra.
Just set a heavy skillet over moderate heat and saute a medium onion sliced into thin strips. Some bacon grease in the pan adds great flavor, but you can use extra-virgin olive oil if you prefer. Add a green bell pepper, season with salt to get the juices flowing out of the vegetables and cook until the onion is softened, then add the okra--a pint or more, stems trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch slices on an angle--and cook another five minutes. Now add corn kernels cut from a couple of cobs, plus a 14-ounce can or diced tomatoes (or use your own plumb tomatoes if you prefer.) Season with freshly ground black pepper, cover and cook gently another 15 minutes or so.
The okra should be soft and flavorful at this point but still have most of its original color. Serve this with your favorites rice dish and maybe some jerked pork or chicken.