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!