If the only kind of okra you know is what you see in the supermarket, it may be you've never been inspired to eat it. What passes for okra in the store is typically awful looking. Even in our local Whole Foods the okra looks to be weeks old--all shriveled and covered with brown blotches. I don't know how the produce manager can sleep at night.
Okra should be firm and bright green (there is also a burgundy okra) without any blemishes. This is the kind of okra we are harvesting in our garden right now. The pods seem to grow overnight--we can hardly keep up.
There are so many things to like about okra it's hard to know where to start. The plant is related to the hibiscus. It makes beautiful flowers on thick, upright stalks. But it also has a strange, almost prehistoric aspect to it. The pods grow long and pointy (they're called "lady fingers" in parts of Asia) with distinctive ridges. Inside the pods, the seeds are perfectly round and eventually large and black like buckshot. The leaves are very large and elaborately notched. As the plant grows, pods form in the crooks between branches and main stem. Pick a pod and the plant keeps growing taller, forming more branches and more pods.
Some people don't like okra because it has a mucilaginous quality, or slime. My okra doesn't seem to be particularly slimy. But even if it were, you'd hardly notice because my favorite way of cooking it is a sort of stew with Caribbean origins: sauteed onion and green bell pepper, okra, corn off the cob and diced tomato. I've been making huge quantities of it lately and assumed readers were tired of hearing about it. So this morning I went through my cookbook collection looking for an alternate preparation.
You may have surmised by now that I am a pretty lazy cook. Slow would be another way to put it. I prefer foods that don't require a lot of fuss and tend to cook themselves. It just so happens that these kinds of foods--cooking slowly all by themselves in a pot on the stove or in the oven--also tend to develop great flavor.
Okra is well suited to this kind of cooking. You'll find it in all sorts of soups and stews. I spent the better part of the morning conducting a survey of okra recipes from my cookbook library. The first thing you notice is how many of the world's best-known authors completely avoid the subject of okra. James Peterson, in "Vegetables," describes an interesting okra salad with soy and sesame seeds, and a miso soup with okra and shiitake mushrooms. (You need to blanch the okra before dressing it as a salad.) "Joy of Cooking" and "Fannie Farmer Cookbook" give classic recipes for okra stews, and of course okra gumbos are standard.
But you really need to dig into the ethnic cookbooks to discover the full range of okra uses. Paula Wolfort describes some delicious sounding lamb stews and tagines with okra. In one treatment, the okra pods are stitched together like a necklace so they can be easily removed at the appropriate moment to cook down the remaining stew ingredients. Jessica Harris delivers numerous recipes for okra stews and soups in her various Caribbean and Creole cookbooks. I noticed the use of greens, such as callaloo, root vegetables, curries and even coconut milk in some of these recipes. They reminded me of an Indian dish I made a while back where the okra was first fried, then tossed with yogurt and chickpea flour and toasted spices.
Still, of the dozens of recipes I looked at, nothing struck me as being exactly the dish I was searching for. Finally it dawned on me that I just might have to make up my own dish, using the ingredients right outside my front door. I had more okra to pick, potatoes already dug during a recent weeding adventure and two Tuscan kale plants that have been badly neglected. As I sliced onion and chopped garlic, a dish gradually came into focus.
Here is my version of stewed okra curry with tomatoes and coconut milk.
1 pound white or red boiling potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced medium
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes (or substitute fresh tomatoes)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
large fistful kale leaves, washed, separated from stems and cut into chiffonade
1 pound okra pods, trimmed and cut on an angle into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon curry powder
Cook the potatoes until just tender in a large saucepan filled with salted water. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and cook the onion and garlic, seasoned with salt, gently until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices, red pepper, kale, okra and the cooked potatoes, drained. Stir in coconut milk and curry powder. Bring pot to a simmer, cover and cook until okra and kale are tender, about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve, either as a side dish or over brown rice.
As an option, you can garnish the stew with chopped fresh tomatoes. For a more classic curry, you could also add toasted spices such as cumin and mustard seed. Since we keep coconut milk and curry powder in the pantry there was no need to go shopping at all. I deduct a couple of points for getting two pots dirty. Otherwise, this okra dish fits perfectly into our gardening scheme. It's a winner.