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!

Make Lemon Gumbo

When life gives you okra, make lemon gumbo. Life didn’t give me lemons last week, but it gave me some HUGE okra pods. A mere two days away from the garden and tiny pods grew so big my grandmother would have disinherited me for not picking them sooner.

The pods weren’t really hard or dry, but they were large and slightly tougher than anything I would want to fry. After the planting, weeding, and watering, I don’t like to throw away anything I’ve grown unless I must. I decided to use the pods in a stew.

Actually, I decided to use the pods in a stew made from ingredients I had on hand. That turned out to be a lemon, some boneless/skinless chicken breasts, chicken stock, brown rice, and seasonings.

While gumbo may technically be a stew thickened with okra, no one I know would call a dish gumbo unless it began with a roux. This did not. Maybe I should call it Coulda-Been-Gumbo.

Anyway, I began with a 32 oz box of ImagineR Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and 2 quarts of water. Into that, I squeezed one fresh lemon.

I removed the ends of each okra pod and sliced them about 1/8” thick. I added the slices to the stock along with one shishito pepper with the non-stem end removed. Then I chopped a small carrot and threw it in. While this mixture was heating, I sprinkled salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper over the mixture.  

I wanted to add a little more flavor to the broth, so I dug around in the spice cabinet opening jars and smelling spices. I like to do this while standing close enough to the boiling pot that I can smell the spice jar and the broth in the same breath. Then I pick the best combination of aromas.

This time, I chose a blend from Penzeys Spices called Ruth Ann’s Muskego Ave Seasoning. The aroma reminds me a little of the chicken bullion cubes my mother used. It’s a blend of salt, black pepper, garlic, lemon peel, and onion. I sprinkled in about a half teaspoon.

Unlike when I test recipes, when I cook like this I rarely measure. That means I can’t tell you precisely how much I added. I can tell you it smelled right after I stirred everything together.

By now, the mixture was boiling. I reduced the heat and allowed it to simmer for 30 minutes. Then I removed the pepper.

Turning the heat back up, I added a cup of parboiled brown rice and 4 thin sliced chicken breasts. I sprinkled the chicken breasts and rice with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. I put on a lid, reduced the heat to medium low, and set a timer for 25 minutes.

Once the timer alerted me, I turned off the heat and allowed the gumbo to sit for about 5 minutes before I spooned some into a bowl. After a little cooling, I was ready to sample.

The flavors were scrumptious and the texture was pleasing. The lemon juice prevented the okra from making the broth slimy. The extra cooking time caused the slices to break apart into tender pieces of green pod and loose seeds. The chicken was moist and tender.

I was pleased enough that I want to try this again. Perhaps next time, I’ll use tilapia instead of chicken. And maybe I’ll add some lemongrass for added citrus zing.

I’m pretty sure the opportunity will present itself soon. Okra grows FAST!

Lessons from the Garden

While I was pulling weeds yesterday, I began reflecting on lessons from the garden. Beyond healthy food, fresh air, sunshine, and closeness to the Earth, gardening brings other positives. And time in the garden when your hands are busy, but your mind is free is time that can be spent exploring them.

I’m not a landscape-pretty raised-bed gardener. Even though I live in the city, I garden like we did on the farm. I have a wire fence enclosure and plant seeds directly in the ground. I’m not as haphazard as my stepfather who just throws a few seeds in a patch of weeds and lets them all grow together. I have rows and I weed in between them as well as in between the plants.

My watering schedule is observational and instinctive. I try to mimic nature. Sometimes I spray with the hand sprayer to impersonate a hard rain that removes larvae from leaves. Other times I use a sprinkler to mimic a slow, soaking rain. If an afternoon is hot, sunny, and bright, I don’t water. Nature would rarely combine heat, bright sun, and rain. So far, I’ve been rewarded with good harvests.

That brings me right back to lessons from the garden:

Finding Balance

Balance is key to my health as well as the health of my garden. Finding balance is part instinct and part effort. My senses tell me when I haven’t had enough water to drink or enough sleep. If I’m a careful observer, I know when I need to say no to that one small obligation that will rob me of needed down time. I know when I need to seek something that stimulates my mind or comforts me physically.

While it sounds like a simple planning issue, a schedule doesn’t work perfectly for keeping balance. Unexpected weather rolls in and everything changes.

Yield to the Weather

And so the garden teaches me that I must yield to the weather. Think how much time we spend attempting to anticipate the weather. Newscasts feature forecasts multiple times an hour. A phone app or website tells us what’s happening 10 days out. We discuss it with friends and look out the window and still sometimes we’re left in a house with no food and no power because a tropical storm turns out to be a Category 2 hurricane or a tornado roars through.

Obviously, not all sudden shifts are from the weather, but the principle applies. With any sudden change that I can’t control, my options are to be flexible and adapt to my new situation or be stuck with a plan that no longer fits.

Patience

While my spring garden had a few weeds, my fall garden was overrun with them by the time I finished forming rows to plant. I weeded and within a day or two the weeds were back. Swift weed removal became my focus. Then I walked down the row of mâche and realized I couldn’t tell the seedlings from the weeds. In order to protect the mâche, I had to let both grow for awhile.

I’m not much for waiting when I know a task is at hand, but the garden teaches patience. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later the wait paid off and there was no question which plants should be removed.

Estimations Can be Wrong

It’s hard to gauge the size of a harvest the first year. You can estimate. You can follow the guidance of experienced gardeners, but your particular garden plot will be unique. Greens may do well and carrots may not. Two of your rows may get more shade than you realized. Having a contingency plan when estimates don’t pan out is always a good idea.

Small Wounds Can Yield Big Pain

My garden has ants. If you’ve ever had an ant bite, you already know the kind of pain they can inflict. It seems wrong. They’re so small. And their bites are so tiny. In fact, they’re so small you may ignore a bite at first. But soon it itches. Then it hurts. A blister forms. By the next day, your whole finger or hand may be swollen. You can’t think about anything besides the bite (especially if there are multiples). All the while, your brain is telling you this is silly. It’s only a tiny ant bite. Get a grip.

Like the physical response to an ant bite, an emotional response may seem disproportionate to a situation. When that response is yours, you may immediately understand that you’re responding to much more than anyone else sees. This is just the straw or it triggered an emotional flashback of sorts. Other times, you may witness someone else experience a large pain that appears to come from a small wound. This can be disconcerting.

Maintaining a connection and holding space for each other to work things out is a soothing compress. The swelling must subside before the pain is gone and that takes a minute. Thank goodness the garden already taught us patience!

For lunch I enjoyed a spinach salad fresh with lessons from the garden. Yum!

Ant Bites

How Does Your Garden Grow?

How does your garden grow? My dad loved to alter the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…. “ I’m sure you remember it:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Dad’s version began “Cheri, Cheri, quite contrary.” Hearing him say that phrase is ingrained in my mind. That doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time gardening, but it may or may not mean I’ve spent a lot of time being contrary. This year that is shifting. Herbs on the back porch are not enough. I just dug up brand new sod to plant a vegetable garden.

arugula
Arugula from my garden.

In early March, I sat on my neighbor’s porch drinking rosé and describing new landscaping plans for my back yard. Two weeks later, we’d been ordered to stay home and I quickly realized many links in the food chain are weak. What if they break? I grew up on a farm helping my grandmother dig potatoes and my great aunts shell peas. My next thought was, I need to plant a garden and get some chickens.

I immediately ordered an electric hand tiller, hoe, shovel, some rabbit wire, fence poles, and a variety of seeds. Panic buying had just begun and already seeds were scarce. If I had done my normal amount of planning, everything would have been gone. I stuck to basics defined by availability and kept the garden to dimensions that would fit within one roll of rabbit wire.

garden_prep

By the time everything arrived and I had the soil prepped, it was early May. Farmers’ markets were opening with vegetables ready to sell. I hadn’t started the seeds in pots. I hadn’t yet planted anything. It felt like I was months behind. I just kept telling myself it would be okay. We have a long growing season in the South. The timing will be fine.

A month later, I have beautiful arugula ready to eat! In a couple of days I’ll begin harvesting lettuce. And soon I’ll have cherry tomatoes, summer squash, and zucchini to add to my salad. Eventually, there will be carrots and green beans to harvest. Some days, I wish I’d planted more. Some days my back is tired from weeding and I’m glad I kept it small.

When I lived in an apartment, I could not have done this. When I had a yard filled with sweet gum trees, it would have taken too long and been too expensive to get started. But even with those obstacles, I managed to get my hands dirty growing herbs and peppers. There’s something healing about the smell and feel of fresh soil. I only wear gloves if fences or stickers are involved. Otherwise, I prefer my bare hands in the soil.

fenced garden

Thirty years ago, I grew my first herbs in small clay pots placed in a little red wagon my kids had outgrown. I would move the wagon around as needed to get optimum sun. I loved watching them grow. I loved the smells. I loved having them available for cooking. And they gave me an opportunity to play in the dirt. I’ve had herbs on my back porch most summers ever since.

How does YOUR garden grow?

It’s not too late to plant some herbs in pots if you’d like to give it a try. If you’re staying home during the pandemic, you can order seed starting kits online and have clay pots and potting soil delivered along with a Walmart grocery order…maybe. Shortages and delays in shipping still exist so a starter kit will let you get seedlings started while you locate and obtain the supplies you need to transplant them into pots.

I like to start seeds outdoors so that I don’t have to transition them to outdoor temperatures and light later. My plants start out accustomed to heat and humidity. If you want to grow your herbs indoors, it will be more appropriate to start indoors. Or if you plant when it’s cold outside, you can slowly transition the starter pots with increasing amounts of heat and light before you begin to transplant.

Most years, I plant basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint. Sometimes I add oregano, dill, parsley, cilantro, or chives to the mix. This year, the selection is a bit different due to availability. A starter kit may not allow you flexibility to substitute, but a variety of kits are available to mix and match. All of the herbs listed above will thrive in a pot as will tarragon, lavender, and lemon balm.

herbs

What you’ll need for seeds or plants

While I’m selecting plants, I purchase some potting soil. Miracle-Gro® offers a whole line of soils for containers. If you’re not confident you’ll water consistently, choose a mix that helps control moisture.

Specialty soils are pricey. If budget is a concern, there are other options. Last year, I chose a sandy inexpensive soil in 40 lb bags from the hardware store. The bags ran about $4 each. I used it for all of my plants including a large rubber tree, ivy, and a couple of pineapples. It’s hard to judge whether the cheaper soil affected growth rate, but everything was alive and well through the fall and early winter.

Of course you need something to put that soil in. I get the best results from clay pots with a drain hole in the bottom, but I use whatever I have handy. Herbs grow quickly so it’s okay to transplant seedlings directly into a fairly large planter.

To plant, I place a few small rocks in the bottom of each container to keep soil from blocking the drain. I partially fill a pot with potting soil, set the herbs in the pot then finish filling the container with soil pressing lightly around the seedlings to secure them.

For the next few days, I water diligently. Then I go to a somewhat haphazard watering schedule keeping an eye out for drooping or yellow leaves to let me know if I’m on track. When the leaves droop, I water. If the leaves turn yellow, I stop watering for a few days. You can also test the soil with your finger to determine whether it’s dry or moist.

Where to grow

My back porch leads directly into my kitchen so it’s a great place for pots of herbs. Much of it gets direct afternoon sun, but there are partially shaded spots where I put plants that can’t tolerate direct sun.

When you purchase seeds, the package will tell you the ideal conditions for your plant. If you purchase plants, they typically have an insert in the pot telling you how much sun and water are best for that particular species. If either of these is missing such information, it is readily available online.

A sunny spot doesn’t have to be outside. It could be in front of a window or patio door. You’ll just want to avoid placing pots too near heat and air vents. To protect your floor, counter, or furniture use a saucer underneath to catch draining water. Inside herbs add a wonderful aroma to any room.

If you don’t have space near a window, look for a nook or cranny in which you can place a grow light. Non-functioning fireplaces make a fantastic growing space. The built-in china cabinets sometimes found in old houses can be adapted as well. Your eyes and imagination will most likely lead to the perfect spot.

There’s no denying this is a stressful time. Connecting to the earth and watching the wonder of natural growth lifts my spirits. Smelling appetizing aromas pleases my senses. Whether a garden grows in the ground in the back yard or pots on the porch, cultivating and maintaining it is a healthy and welcome pastime.

I am happy with how my garden grows. I still haven’t bought any chickens.

https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/herb-garden/5068.html

https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/gardening-under-lights/5080.html

https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/gardens/garden-styles-and-types/types-of-grow-lights-for-indoor-plants

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”