Okra – A Great Summer Vegetable

This is one of my family’s favorite summertime vegetable!  Most people know it as a battered and deep fried delicacy – capable of clogging any good Southerner’s arteries – or as an important ingredient in gumbos.  However, okra is so much more than that.  Okra originally grew wild in Africa and is one of the few vegetables that grows very well in the heat of the summer, even here in Florida.  The okra flowers are some of the prettiest I have ever seen in our garden.  The leaves of the okra plant can be eaten like dandelion or beet greens, although I have never tried them.  Okra is an extremely versatile vegetable and can be boiled, stewed, fried, browned, incorporated into stews and soups, pickled and used in salads or on crudite platters.  Fresh okra is very difficult to find because okra is more delicate than it appears.  Within a day or two of harvesting, the outside of the okra will begin to blacken.  Once okra begins to blacken, I will still use it in casseroles and stews, but I won’t serve it raw or lightly browned.  I have only found truly fresh okra in produce markets or farm stands.  Supermarkets just can’t get it on the shelf fast enough after harvesting.  If you are lucky enough to find it fresh, make sure to select the smallest and firmest pods.  Once the okra pod gets too long, it often becomes woody and too hard to eat.  Fresh okra has little “hairs” on it that can irritate the skin, so I have to be careful while rooting through the bin to find the best pods.  I often stick my hand through a plastic bag while selecting my okra to protect my skin.  I also make sure to wash my hands before and after preparing it.  Frozen okra is a great substitute in casseroles and stews, but fresh okra has a delicate and fresh flavor that no other vegetable can duplicate.

Some people are often “put off” by the “sliminess” they associate with okra.  I find that okra is only slimy if it is not prepared properly or if it is stored too long.  When browning fresh okra, I let it cook long and hot enough that it “passes through” the slimy phase.  It starts out crisp, gets slimy while browning, and then the slime disappears – like magic.  Stopping the browning process too soon will leave you with a clump of gooey pods that no one finds enjoyable.  In soups and stews, okra’s slime can be used to your advantage in thickening the dish.  Just make sure the recipe has enough water in it to thicken without clumping.

When we had our garden, we loved okra so much that we could never grow enough to have it as a side dish for dinner.  We always had to combine it with our other garden vegetables.  I loved to go outside just prior to dinner and pick some okra, tomatoes and peppers to sauté together with some onion.  I did however become very spoiled when we owned our own produce market.  I used to love market days which were the days my husband would return from his overnight trips to the large wholesale market across the state with our shop’s 3 day supply of produce.  There was nothing as beautiful to me as opening the case of just-picked okra and gazing upon the bounty it contained.  I found that we liked it so much, even my largest skillet would not accommodate enough okra to quench our appetites.  Often, we would be left negotiating for the last of it.  It was amazing to see what the children were willing to trade for a few more slices.  Once you have enjoyed fresh, crisp okra sliced and slightly browned (without breading) in a cast iron skillet, you will have experienced a little bit of heaven and understand our love affair with this summer time delicacy.

Click here for a delicious Corn, Okra and Tomato side dish.

Nutritional info:

Serving Size: about 8 pods

Calories: 60
Fat: 0
Dietary Fiber: 2g
Protein: 4g

% of U.S RDA

Vitamin A 20%
Calcium 12%
Vitamin C 40%
Iron 8%

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