Okra, many of your have heard of it, yet perhaps only of few of you have had an opportunity to taste this beloved vegetable of the south. Well my friends, allow this heat loving, lantern shaped veggie to elude you, no more! It is my intention to get you well versed in the background of okra, as well as various ways in which to prepare and store okra with the help from my friend Mi Ae Lipe, author of Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook. In her thorough cookbook, I found a treasure trove of information of which I will share with you today. Soon enough you will be slicing, dicing, dredging, frying, and baking okra in your home this summer. So, let’s get started!
Okra is a tropical, heat-loving plant. Surprisingly, it is a member of the Hibiscus family, with beautiful yellow or pink blossoms that are reminiscent of its flashier cousins. Okra is a popular vegetable in African, Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Caribbean cuisines, and in America, it is closely associated with the Deep South and African-American soul food. Okra, because of its mucilaginous qualities, has long been valued as a thickener in soups and stews. In fact, gumbo, the famous Louisiana stew, relies on either okra or filé powder as a thickening agent (but never both).
Okra’s meaty texture makes it a remarkably versatile vegetable that behaves well whether it is pickled, steamed, breaded, and fried, grilled, sautéed, stewed, braised, or even roasted. Both red and green forms of okra exist; the scarlet pods will usually turn green when cooked. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, and, interestingly, okra seed oil is also being explored for potential biodiesel production. Score one for alternative fuel resources!
Coming in at only 33 calories per one cup serving, okra is set to provide you with a low-calorie source of dietary fiber, as well as folate, thiamine, vitamins C and K, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. The mucilaginous properties of okra promote a healthy gut as it encourages healthy gut bacteria and may soothe inflammation. In traditional medicine it is used to soothe a sore throat, headache, fever, and digestive disturbances.
When selecting okra, they are at their sweetest and tenderest when they are only 2 to 3 inches long. Look for bright-colored, fresh-looking pods that are firm and crisp when snapped open, with no signs of shriveling or flabbiness.
Okra is surprisingly perishable and should be used within a few days of purchase. Store the dry, unwashed pods in a paper bag in the warmer part of the refrigerator (usually the upper area). Okra, in keeping with its tropical origins, does not like temperatures below 45°F.
Wait to wash okra until right before you use it. Small okra pods need nothing more than a little stem trimming, whereas you should cut the caps off larger okra pods if they are to be used whole. For dishes calling for sliced okra, cut off the cap or whole top end and slice the pods crosswise. The rule of thumb when pan cooking okra is to keep the oil/pan hot, as well as the pan less crowded (crowded pans lower the heat), and the okra as dry as possible when going in. This will all help to reduce the divine slime that okra exudes. It is also said that soaking the whole pods in a one-to-one ratio of water and vinegar for one hour then thoroughly drying the okra before cooking, can reduce the slime factor. You can also slice the okra into larger pieces or cook them whole. I say, “be brave my friend!” Give in to its unique and inherent qualities and you just may be pleasantly surprised. As my mom always said, “You never know until you try it.” So, go ahead, give it a go! Here are some tips from the Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook to help you along the way.
Steaming and Boiling
Okra takes beautifully to steaming. To minimize sliminess, steam the pods whole, about 3 to 8 minutes, depending on their size. They should remain bright green for best texture and flavor; do not overcook.
Stir-Frying and Sautéing
Okra takes well to stir-frying and sautéing. Cooking whole pods rather than slices will reduce the sliminess a bit, and it is important that you start with okra that is dry on the outside (not still wet from washing)—otherwise you may end up with a mushier result. Cook small whole pods for 4 to 6 minutes or until tender on medium-high heat in a wok or large frying pan. Sliced okra may cook even more quickly. Be sure to add a bit of oil or melted butter to the pan, or they will stick.
Baking and Roasting
Roasting okra is an unusual way to prepare okra, but it produces great results. It also reduces some of its sliminess. Trim off the stems and caps, and place whole pods on a baking sheet or pan. Drizzle olive oil or seasonings over the pods, then roast for 10 to 15 minutes in a 425°F oven.
Blanching and Freezing
Trim the stems and caps off the okra, but be careful not to cut into the seed cell area, as that will release the vegetable’s slippery juices. Blanch small whole pods in salted boiling water for 3 minutes and larger ones for 4 minutes. Drain, then plunge them into an ice-water bath for a few minutes to stop the cooking process. Drain thoroughly, then package them in zipper-lock freezer or vacuum food sealer-type bags, or freezer containers.
Squeeze out any excess air and leave ½ inch of headspace (unless you are using the vacuum sealing method). You can also quick-freeze individual pods by placing them on a tray lined with parchment paper and putting the tray into the freezer for a few hours. Once they are frozen, transfer them into freezer bags. Frozen okra will keep about 10 months at 0°F.
Equivalents, Measures, and Servings
- 1 pound, fresh = 35 pods = 10 to 12 ounces trimmed
- 1 pound, fresh = 3 to 4 cups sliced
- 1 pound = 3 to 4 servings
Complementary Herbs, Seasonings, and Foods
Apricots, chiles, cinnamon, citrus, coconut, coriander, corn, cumin, curry, garam masala, garlic, ginger, lamb, lemon, lime, mangoes, mustard, nutmeg, onions, oranges, shallots, soy sauce, tomato, turmeric, vinegar, wasabi.
- Okra makes a great finger food, for obvious reasons. Lightly steam very young pods and have on hand little bowls of hollandaise sauce, melted butter, or mayonnaise for dipping—it could become a hit with children when served this way.
- Breaded, deep-fried okra is a southern favorite. Dredge okra slices in either plain or Cajun-seasoned cornmeal.
- Okra is a staple in Indian cuisine, where it combines well with all sorts of spices and piquant sauces.
- Okra is a natural with acidic foods like tomatoes and vinegar; it is also excellent in sweet-and-sour dishes.
- Pickle okra just like small cucumbers.
- Add okra to stews or soups as a surprise vegetable—its viscous texture can pleasantly thicken the dish.
- Add sliced, sautéed okra to omelets and quiches.
- Cook sliced okra in butter with onions and ham. Combine with cooked rice, then use to stuff hollowed-out tomatoes. Bake until nice and hot.
- Steam okra and combine with oranges baked with nutmeg for a simple, delicious side dish.
- Add okra to rice and azuki beans for a twist on the traditional rice and beans of the American South. This is a popular celebratory dish in Japan.
- In Morocco, okra is combined with braised lamb and pears in a savory stew.
- Caribbean cooking frequently uses okra, which combines it with cornmeal in a dish called coo-coo, a Creole version of polenta.
- A healthy addition to your smoothie, as it adds a creamy texture and a thick consistency.
Okra, Corn, and Tomatoes
- 4 slices bacon (or other meat/faux meat with a smoky flavor)
- 1 cup coarsely chopped onion (1 large)
- 2 cups fresh cherry or grape tomatoes halved (or 2 cups canned diced tomatoes, undrained)
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels, or two (15.25-ounce) cans whole-kernel corn, drained
- 2½ cups cut fresh okra, or one (1-pound) bag frozen okra
- 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until crisp. Remove the bacon, but leave 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings in the pan. Drain the bacon on paper towels, crumble it, and set aside.
- Cook the onion in the bacon drippings over medium heat, stirring occasionally until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
- If you’re using fresh tomatoes, corn, and okra: Add the okra and corn kernels to the pan and sauté 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and seasonings and sauté for another 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, or until all the vegetables are tender. Sprinkle with the bacon.
- If you’re using canned tomatoes and corn and frozen okra: Stir in all the ingredients except the bacon. Heat to boiling. Reduce the heat to low; cover and simmer 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the okra is tender. Sprinkle with the bacon.
— Adapted from Betty Crocker, as appears in Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook, by Mi Ae Lipe
So, my friends as you can see there is nothing to be afraid of. You are now empowered with detailed information on how to properly choose, prepare, and store what may become your newest favorite vegetable. And, with your newly empowered self I expect that the next time you see okra available at your favorite produce provider, you will purchase a couple of handfuls and explore your inner chef skills with gusto. Remember, share your new-found love, and pass along your joy with others so they too can awaken unto this underrated beauty. Cheers!