Okra grows in an elongated, lantern shape vegetable. It is a fuzzy, green colored, and ribbed pod that is approximately 2 to 7 inches in length. This vegetable is more famously known by its rows of tiny seeds and slimy or sticky texture when cut open. Okra is also known as bamia, bindi, bhindi, lady’s finger, and gumbo, is a member of the cotton (Mallow) family.
Okra was discovered around Ethiopia during the 12th century B.C. and was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians. This vegetable soon flourished throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the seed pods were consumed cooked and the seeds toasted, ground, and served as a coffee substitute.
With the advent of the slave trade, it eventually came to North America and is now commonly grown in the southern United States. You will now see okra in African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, and South American cuisines. Okra is related to cotton and hibiscus.
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The Lowdown on Okra
Ethiopian slaves brought the okra plant to America’s South, where it’s still popular today.
The green okra pods have a ridged skin and a tapered, oblong shape.
Although available fresh year-round in the South, the season for the rest of the country is from about May through October.
Fresh okra contains fair amounts of vitamins A and C.
Okra is a Powerhouse of Nutrients
Okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern region. It grows well in the southern United States where there is little frost.
Okra is a powerhouse of valuable nutrients. It is a good source of vitamin C. It is low in calories (20 calories per one-half cup cooked, sliced okra) and is fat-free. Okra is also a good source of vitamin a, calcium and fiber.
People cultivated okra for the pods, which are harvested in the immature stage and used in salads and soups. Okra is a prime ingredient of the gumbos and stews of Louisiana.
Current indications are that a diet containing okra has value in reducing cholesterol levels.
Varieties of Okra
Clemson variety is dark green with angular pods. This okra takes less than two months to mature.
Emerald type is dark green, with smooth round pods.
Lee is a spineless type known by its deep bright green, very straight angular pods.
Annie Oakley is a hybrid, spineless kind of okra with bright green, angular pods. It takes less than two months from seeding to maturity.
Chinese okra is a dark green type grown in California and reaches 10 to 13 inches in length. These extra-long okra pods are sometimes called “ladyfingers.”
Purple Okra a rare variety you may see at peak times. There is a version grown for its leaves that resemble sorrel in New Guinea.
Availability, Selection, and Storage of Okra
When preparing, remember that the more okra is cut, the slimier it will become. Its various uses allow for okra to be added to many different recipes. Okra is commonly used as a thickening agent in soups and stews because of its sticky core. However, okra may also be steamed, boiled, pickled, sauteed, or stir-fried whole. Okra is a sensitive vegetable and should not be cooked in pans made of iron, copper or brass since the chemical properties turns okra black.
Young Versus Mature Okra — What is the difference?
Most okra pods are ready to be harvested in less than two months of planting. If the okra is going be consumed, then these pods must be harvested when they are very young. They are usually picked when they are two to three inches long, or tender stage.
Okra pods grow quickly from the tender to tough stage. Pods are considered mature when they exceed three inches in length. Mature okra is tough and is not recommended for use in certain recipes.
Most people who have eaten or have cooked okra, know about the okra slime. Some recipes call for the whole okra, but how do you deal with the okra slime?
There are couple ways to minimize the slime:
- Simply trim the off the ends and avoid puncturing the okra capsule.
- You can also minimize the slime factor by avoiding the tendency to overcook okra.
When buying fresh okra look for firm, brightly colored pods under 4 inches long. Larger pods may be tough and fibrous. Avoid those that are dull in color, limp or blemished. Okra pods should be green and tender. Do not buy okra if the pods look dry or shriveled because they will lack flavor and be tough. Okra spoils quickly and should be refrigerated as soon as possible.
Refrigerate okra in a plastic bag for up to 3 days. Canned and frozen okra is also available.
These green pods can be prepared in a variety of ways including braising, baking and frying. When cooked, okra gives off a rather viscous substance that serves to thicken any liquid in which it is cooked. Throughout the South, it’s a favorite ingredient in many dishes, the best known being gumbo, where it’s used both for thickening and for flavor.
Never wash okra until you are ready to use it or you will remove a protective coating that keeps the pods from becoming slimy.
Mature okra is used to make rope and paper! (Avoid those old woody pods!).
Okra is excellent sauteed or fried. Very young, tender pods can be sliced, dipped in egg, breaded with corn meal and fried. Saute 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.
Remember that okra is slimy and sticky – it is supposed to be that way. Okra, with its sticky ooze, provides a wonderful soup thickener; thus it is often used in gumbos and pilaus. If you object to this quality, don’t eat okra. You can’t get rid of this quality by soaking or overcooking. Following is an example of okra used in a delicioius Low-Country soup.
Savannah Okra Soup Recipe
This soup is quite delicious when accompanied by corn bread and rice.
- 1 soup bone
- 2-1/8 quarts okra, sliced
- 1-1/4 pint tomatoes, peeled and diced
Salt to taste
Put soup bone in large saucepan or pot with enough water to cover. Boil for 1 hour.
Add okra and tomatoes to the pot. Set stove to medium heat (just under boiling) and cook for 3 hours, or until the soup is well blended and thick. Add salt to taste before serving.
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