Okra is a member of the Mallow family, related to cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock. It is a tall (6 ft) annual tropical herb cultivated for its edible green seed pod (there is also a red pod variety, which turns green when cooked). It has heart shaped leaves (one species is cultivated for its edible leaves), and large, yellow, hibiscus-like flowers. The seed pods are 3 - 10 inches long, tapering, usually with ribs down its length. These tender, unripe seed pods are used as a vegetable, and have a unique texture and sweet flavor. The pods, when cut, exude a mucilaginous juice that is used to thicken stews (gumbo), and have a flavor somewhat like a cross between asparagus and eggplant.
Okra probably originated somewhere around Ethiopia, and was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians by the 12th century B.C. Its cultivation spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The seed pods were eaten cooked, and the seeds were toasted and ground, used as a coffee substitute (and still is).
Okra came to the Caribbean and the U.S. in the 1700s, probably brought by slaves from West Africa, and was introduced to Western Europe soon after. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned from slaves the use of okra (gumbo) to thicken soups and it is now an essential in Créole Gumbo.
Today okra is popular in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, the Caribbean, South America and the Southern U.S. It is not a very common vegetable in most European countries, except for Greece and parts of Turkey.
Due to increased interest in American regional foods, these bright green, tender pods have gained more respect as a vegetable in the U.S., aside from its use as a thickener.
Store in a paper bag in the warmest part of refrigerator, as temperatures below 45 degrees can damage okra. It does not store well, so use within 2 or 3 days at most.
Do not wash until ready to use, or it will become slimy. When preparing, remember that the more it is cut, the slimier it will become. Aluminum pots will discolor it.
Okra is excellent sautéed or fried. Very young, tender pods can be sliced, dipped in egg, breaded with corn meal and fried (a favorite here in the Southern U.S.). Sauté with corn kernels, onion and sweet peppers. Okra can also be steamed, baked, pickled, boiled or stewed. Because of its similar flavor, it can be used in place of eggplant in many recipes. Use it raw in salads. Avoid long cooking times unless you are making soups, stews or gumbo.
When the pods are cut, they exude a mucilaginous (thick and sticky) juice that is an excellent thickener for stews and soups, especially Créole Gumbo. The flavor blends well with acid foods such as tomatoes.
Remember, okra is slimy and sticky - it is supposed to be that way. If you object to this quality, don't eat okra. You can't get rid of this quality by soaking or overcooking. Accept it and like it. Or not.
Okra is a good source of vitamin C and A, also B complex vitamins, iron and calcium. It is low in calories, a good source of dietary fiber, and is fat-free.
Quick Pickled Okra
- 1 pound okra, trimmed and halved lengthwise
- 6 tablespoons coarse salt
- 3 cups distilled white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon store-bought pickling spice
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 medium onions, halved lengthwise, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
- 1 fresh jalapeno, halved lengthwise, stemmed, and seeded
Rinse okra in a colander. Add 3 tablespoons salt, and toss to combine. Let okra drain in sink 10 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath; set aside.
Put remaining 3 tablespoons salt, 2 cups water, the vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, pickling spice, cayenne, onions, and jalapeno into a nonreactive medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved.
Rinse okra under cold running water to remove salt. Transfer to a large nonreactive bowl. Pour brine over okra. Set bowl in ice-water bath; let cool 10 minutes. Transfer bowl to refrigerator to cool completely, about 25 minutes. Serve.
Basic Fried Okra
- 1 lb. fresh okra
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 cup self-rising cornmeal
- 1 cup self-rising flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. ground red pepper
- Vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup bacon drippings
1. Cut off and discard tip and stem ends from okra; cut okra into 1⁄2-inch-thick slices. Stir into buttermilk; cover and chill 45 minutes.
2. Combine cornmeal and next 3 ingredients in a bowl. Remove okra from buttermilk with a slotted spoon, and discard buttermilk. Dredge okra, in batches, in the cornmeal mixture.
3. Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches into a dutch oven or cast-iron skillet; add bacon drippings, and heat to 375°. Fry okra, in batches, 4 minutes or until golden; drain on paper towels.
Peppery Grilled Okra with Lemon-Basil Dipping Sauce
- Cheesecloth or coffee filter
- 1 (32-oz.) container plain low-fat yogurt
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
- 1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground pepper, divided
- 2 pounds fresh okra, trimmed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Garnish: freshly ground pepper
1. Line a wire-mesh strainer with 3 layers of cheesecloth or 1 (12-cup) coffee filter. Place strainer over a bowl. Spoon yogurt into strainer. Cover and chill 24 hours. Remove yogurt, discarding strained liquid.
2. Preheat grill to 400° to 450° (high) heat. Combine strained yogurt, basil, next 3 ingredients, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
3. Toss together okra, olive oil, and remaining 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper in a large bowl.
4. Grill okra, covered with grill lid, over 400° to 450° (high) heat 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until tender. Cool 5 minutes.
5. Transfer okra to a serving dish, and serve with dipping sauce. Garnish, if desired.
Skillet Roasted Okra & Shrimp
Adapted from Virginia Willis' latest book, Okra, published by The University of North Carolina Press, this fast sauté is great over grits or a bed of arugula/greens.
½ lb. fresh okra, halved lengthwise
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 pt. grape tomatoes
1 lb. peeled, large raw shrimp, deveined
½ tsp. dried crushed red pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sauté okra in 1 Tbsp. hot olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat 4 to 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer okra to a large bowl. Add tomatoes and 1 Tbsp. oil to skillet; sauté 3 minutes or until skins begin to burst. Transfer tomatoes to bowl with okra. Add shrimp and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil to skillet; sprinkle shrimp with red pepper. Sauté 2 to 3 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink. Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds. Stir in okra mixture, and sauté 1 to 2 minutes or until hot. Stir in salt, pepper, and parsley.