Why Isn’t Okra a Star?

Why isn’t okra a star ingredient? I mean, it’s even shaped like a star. What gives?

This summer, I planted okra in my garden. It’s still going strong. The plants haven’t required much other than an occasional watering to become taller than I and they are prolific producers. One acre yields 4 to 6 tons.

In spite of that, I rarely see okra at the farmers market and it’s not often available at the supermarket. This left me curious what drives the minimal availability and whether accessibility limits its inclusion in recipes. I started clicking around.

Okra is grown commercially for both the fresh and frozen food markets. Some varieties have round pods. Those preferred for the fresh market have star-shaped pods. That’s what I grow.

Since pods for the fresh market require harvesting with a knife, picking can be time-consuming. And the window for perfect-sized pods is narrow. No need to click around to discover that. I’ve learned the lesson in person many times over. Picking a single acre of okra takes between 10 and 20 man-hours.

Machine harvesting has been attempted with varying degrees of success. Given its labor-intensive nature, okra may never be available on the scale of potatoes, corn, or spinach.

But does that mean okra shouldn’t star in more dishes than gumbo, succotash, okra & tomatoes, and fried or pickled okra? Many of you may be imagining its slimy texture and thinking, nah, that’s plenty of dishes– maybe more than enough.

It’s true okra can be slimy. Pairing it with citrus or adding vinegar will reduce this. You can also cook at high heat to minimize sliminess. For example: sautéing, grill charring, or breading and frying result in delicious flavor and texture sans slime.

I sometimes slice a few pods and throw them in with fresh green beans I’m sautéing. The other day, I added some sautéed slices to pasta. It took the dish from a solid, everyday flavor into the slightly exotic category.

I love using large pods, lemon juice, lemongrass, chicken stock, water, and seasoning to create a broth for cooking fish and rice. It creates a pleasing base that can be taken to another level with the addition of saffron or topped with fresh pico de gallo for an extra pop of flavor.

Okra will grow in zones 2 – 11 but it’s traditionally considered a southern food. That association may contribute to it being a role player rather than a star ingredient.

And while many people may hear the word slime and assume they won’t like it, anyone who has had fried okra done right will fight you for it at the store. It was always the star of my grandmother’s summer table.

Tomorrow, it will be the star of mine. I have some sliced and breaded and waiting in the refrigerator. Once I pull out a cast iron skillet and heat some oil, I’ll be minutes away from a mix of soft and crunchy texture that tastes like nothing else!

I even have vine-ripened tomatoes from the garden to go with. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Promote Calmness Through Food

It’s a good day to promote calmness through food. For lots of people in my state, it’s a hard day to be calm. Our basketball team plays in the Elite Eight tonight. They’ve been a bit of a heart attack team in the tournament so far, making it impossible to calmly lounge on the couch and watch. Could the snacks we choose for the game help quell our anxiety?

I’m not going to pretend that only a handful of almonds tonight will slow our heartbeats when we’re trailing by 10. That’s not how wellness through food generally works. But skipping the sugary, carb-filled food and beverages can help diminish the jittery feeling caused by fluctuating blood sugar levels.

That doesn’t mean you have to go snack free to reduce anxiety. A handful of crunchy raw almonds or sunflower seeds will provide magnesium. Magnesium deficiency has been shown to increase anxiety-related behaviors.

Spinach is also a source of magnesium as are Swiss chard, legumes, other seeds and nuts, and whole grains. You may not want to eat a spinach salad during the game, but spinach dip could hit the spot. You could even serve it with bean-based tortilla chips.

Some experts recommend foods rich in B vitamins to reduce anxiety. That makes guacamole another great gameday snack food. Or serve layer dip with beans, sour cream, guacamole, salsa, cheese, green onions, and tomatoes.

Pickles are probiotics that have been linked to lower social anxiety. A plate of crunchy dill pickles will be a welcome addition to your coffee table fare.  Another option is pickled asparagus. You’ll get probiotic benefits coupled with the anti-anxiety properties of asparagus.

And while you’re gathering snacks, don’t forget one of our family favorites – deviled eggs. Foods rich in zinc, like eggs, have also been linked to lower levels of anxiety.

Gluten-free diet followers will be pleased to learn that low anxiety dessert is in the offing. Buckwheat and quinoa are high in magnesium as well as B vitamins. And dark chocolate provides both magnesium and antioxidants. More antioxidants can mean less anxiety. A buckwheat chocolate cookie sweetened with dates, honey, or coconut crystals is the perfect dessert combination for game day.

If you don’t have time to bake, a bowl of fresh berries topped with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg is a refreshing addition to an antioxidant-filled menu.

And when it’s not game day, all of these foods will still help reduce anxiety. Many are effective for lessening depression as well.

A balanced diet filled with fresh food and plenty of water will give your body the support it needs to function properly. This can go a long way toward building physical and mental and emotional resiliency. I need to get started snacking now so that I’ll have the stamina to watch the game…calmly.

Forget Talking Turkey; Let’s Talk Tofu

Forget talking turkey; let’s talk tofu!  With an uptick in plant-based diets, along with meat shortages due to the pandemic, tofu has become a more prominent protein in the US over the past year. Sales of plant-based foods the third week of March 2020 were up 90%.

While having enough popularity to be continually consumed in Asia for over 1000 years, the American market has mostly viewed tofu as a tasteless something you really don’t need on your plate. But that take denies some of the health benefits of this soybean product.

Like eggs, tofu is a complete protein. It contains calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc plus it’s cholesterol free, sodium free, and low in saturated fat. A 3oz serving of extra firm tofu contains about 80 calories, 4 total grams of saturated fat and 8 grams of protein. That’s less protein than beef, but also less than half the calories. A 3oz plant-based burger has about 15 grams of total fat, 15g of protein and 203 calories.

A 2019 retrospective study that included a total of 330,826 participants showed consuming soy/soy products was inversely associated with deaths from cancers and cardiovascular diseases. The authors concluded: “Soy and its isoflavones may favorably influence risk of mortality. In addition, soy protein intake was associated with a decreased risk in the mortality of breast cancer.”

That’s a lot of pluses. Why don’t we like it? Perhaps because it falls into the “tastes like whatever is next to it” category. While that actually makes tofu wonderfully versatile, it also means some preparation is required to bring it satisfying taste and texture when it’s the main focus. But tofu can also be used to add protein to yogurt, smoothies, shakes, and salad dressings.

My sister has been deliberately adding protein to her diet, so my brother-in-law bought her some high-protein snack bars to take to the office. She shoved one in her backpack. Later that morning, she took it out, took a bite, and thought, that’s pretty good. Wonder what’s in it? She consulted the label.

Big mistake! Once she read the words cricket flour and visualized crickets in her food, she was D-O-N-E done…forever. A tofu smoothie would not have elicited the same response!

Not only is tofu good in a smoothie, it can be used as a dairy-free substitute for ricotta cheese in lasagna or as a dairy-free pudding base. It’s also delicious seasoned, baked, and added to stir-fry or bowls.

Should you rush out and buy some tofu? If you’re not familiar and love to experiment, then absolutely yes! If you want to add some quick protein to everyday foods without adding lots of fats, or insects, then yes! If you have estrogen-sensitive breast tumors or thyroid problems, then it may be best to consult your physician first before incorporating soy into your diet.

For most of us, tofu can be a healthy addition to any meal. It can fill gaps when other proteins are not available. And it can round out a plant-based diet. Those are all great reasons to talk tofu!

A Handful of Almonds

While you’re watching the debate tomorrow night, enjoy a handful of almonds. No matter how you feel about politics, you can’t go wrong with a simple, nutritious snack that pays homage to those who came before. You may remember that during an Obama speech to the DNC in 2016, Matt Yglesias tweeted, “Tonight, Obama’s going to eat seven chocolate-covered almonds.”

We all snack at different times and for different reasons. Rather than trying to eliminate snacking, why not enjoy eating something you can feel good about?

I’m not sure whether the chocolate-covered almonds referenced are cocoa dusted or almonds covered in candy. Of the two, cocoa dusted is the healthier choice. Healthier still are raw almonds.

Seven raw almonds contain 49 calories, 1.8 grams of protein, 1.7 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, and 4.3 grams of fat. They also have 21 mg of calcium and 61 mg of potassium. For comparison, a banana has 5 mg calcium and a tablespoon of whole milk has 17. A banana also has 358 mg potassium, 90 calories, and .3 grams of fat. A tablespoon of whole milk has 22 mg potassium, 9 calories, and .5 grams of fat. Almonds also provide a good supply of vitamin E, manganese, and magnesium. While they may seem high in calories, some of those calories are not absorbed by the body.

The brown skin of almonds is high in healthy antioxidants. In fact, vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect your cells from oxidative damage. Studies have linked higher vitamin E consumption with lowered rates of Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease.

Magnesium lowers blood sugar levels and reduces insulin resistance which may help prevent Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. A sufficient amount of manganese is required to keep blood pressure in check. As if that weren’t enough, almonds can help lower LDL cholesterol levels.

Almonds fill you up, protect your cells, help preserve your memory, and give you satisfying crunch. Sounds like a pretty good snack, no?

Whether you’re enjoying the debates, binge watching, or taking a hike, almonds are a great choice when you want a snack between meals. Just a handful will do!

https://www.calorieking.com/us/en/foods/f/calories-in-nuts-almonds-raw/ZBfdrfsWRzyC1C68o0NSrw

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-proven-benefits-of-almonds#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20199999/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12117360/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15321799/