Slime, Delicious Slime
Okra: Our Mucilaginous Friend
by Gay Lyons
Okra, which I’ve selected as September’s vegetable of the month, is a food that provokes a strong response. I’ve run into several people recently who’ve told me they simply do not eat okra. And the unspoken implication is that if I had any sense, I wouldn’t either. I know people who only eat okra if it is either dipped in batter or rolled in flour or cornmeal and fried, a technique that renders lots of things edible.
Do those who don’t eat okra look down upon those who do? Is it a Southern thing? Or are there class issues? My friend Andie told me of being in the grocery store in preparation for her first attempt at frying okra. Realizing she didn’t know what kind of corn meal (white? yellow? self-rising?) to buy, she asked the advice of another woman in the aisle who haughtily informed her, “I don’t eat okra,” to which Andie ever so sweetly replied, “I’m so sorry.”
What is it about okra that turns some people off?
An okra pod is not unattractive. It has hairy, prickly skin, but not enough to irritate your hands unless you’re harvesting lots of it. For many people, okra is a turnoff because of its mucilaginous properties. That’s a fancy way of saying okra is a little slimy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s an especially good thing if you want to thicken your gumbo.
Okra, which is popular in the American South, is thought to have originated in Africa and been brought to this country by slaves. It is a common ingredient in African and Indian cuisines. In the United States, it is generally served pickled or fried or as an ingredient in soups or stews.
If you’re an okra lover seeking to bond with other okra lovers, there is a website just for you. Ravi Kochhar, who is originally from India, has a website devoted exclusively to okra: www.physiology.wisc.edu/ravi/okra /
At Kochhar’s website, you’ll learn about cultivating and cooking with okra. You can also read about the annual okra festival in Burkville, Ala., and see photos of decorative lizards made from dried, painted okra pods, which made me think of my Pappaw Henry who was so locally famous for carving monkeys from peach pits it was mentioned at his funeral. Whenever anyone asked him why he restricted himself to monkeys, he stated that a monkey was all you could carve from a peach pit. I have a feeling a lizard may be the only creature you can fashion from an okra pod.
Okra is nutritious. It has few calories and lots of fiber. It’s also high in vitamin B6 and folic acid. The bad news is that in order to reap the maximum nutritional benefits, okra should be eaten raw or lightly steamed. Frying okra not only increases the calories but also decreases the fiber. Anyone who likes okra is not likely to give up eating it fried, but there are some delicious ways to cook okra that should retain more of its nutritional value.
Try grilling okra. And while you’re grilling, you might enjoy an okratini, a martini in which the olive or pickled onion is replaced with pickled okra.
Blanch a pound of okra in a quart of salted water for a couple of minutes. Put the okra into some ice water to chill. Mix one-fourth cup olive oil, two cloves of mashed garlic, a teaspoon of cumin and a little salt. Drain the okra and toss it in the oil until it’s coated. Place four or five okra pods side by side. This works best with pods of about the same size. Skewer with two skewers, one at the top and one at the bottom, creating a “ladder,” which will make turning the okra easy. Grill 6-10 minutes, turning every few minutes until the okra is crispy. For a different taste, coat the okra in a simple mixture of toasted sesame oil and salt and pepper.
If you think of ladyfingers as the spongy pieces of cake used in tiramisu and other desserts, a recipe for ladyfinger relish sounds pretty weird, but in Africa okra is known as ladyfingers. This recipe for ladyfinger relish, which can be served hot or cold with meat or fish, comes from Zanzibar.
Sauté a half cup of thinly sliced onions in a couple of tablespoons of oil until slightly brown. Add another half cup of chopped onions, two cloves minced garlic, one teaspoon crushed red pepper and some freshly grated ginger and sauté for a minute or so. You can substitute a teaspoon of ground ginger, but the fresh ginger will make it so much better. Add two pounds fresh okra, ends removed, cut into one inch slices and sauté for several more minutes. Add a chopped tomato and sauté for five more minutes.
Once a month from now through November, I’ll be on WBIR’s “Style” show to talk about the vegetable of the month and the Market Square Farmers’ Market. Go to www.wbir.com and click on Style to find additional recipes using okra.