If you snooze you lose. This is particularly true for vegetable gardeners who decide to plant okra.
It seems that one morning the fruit is only an inch long and by the next morning the fruit has grown too large to enjoy. I am sure there is some way to enjoy okra that has grown past the optimum size of about 3 to 5 inches, but I have not found it.
If it gets too large it becomes so fibrous that it feels like you are eating a rope.
You must stay on your toes if you decide to raise okra. If you do, you will be rewarded with an incredibly delicious fruit. Technically okra is a fruit, like the tomato, that we eat as a vegetable.
A couple of years ago I shared some okra recipes and those dishes are on the Advocate’s website. Today let’s take a look at some less common uses for okra. For those who may not be quite adventurous enough to try the uncommon, I have included a recipe that even the most ardent okra hater will love.
The origin of okra is the subject of some debate. Many believe that cultivation of okra began in the area around Ethiopia. There is evidence that it was widely grown in ancient Egypt around 1200 B.C. Okra came to North America through the slave trade. It was grown widely in the South.
Okra grows best in climates that are hot and humid. In fact, if you Google “hot and humid climate” you will get Victoria, Texas. Well, that may not be exactly true, but our climate is just about perfect for growing okra.
The mucilaginous texture that stewed okra develops is the reason given most often for why some dislike okra. It is this exact texture that many cultures find most attractive. For millennia okra has been used as a thickener. Cookbooks of the 1700s and 1800s are full of stews, gumbos and chowders with okra playing a prominent role. Man cannot live by stewed okra alone.
When we think of greens, we usually think of turnip greens, collard greens, or maybe mustard greens. Like these greens as well as dandelion leaves and sweet potato leaves, okra leaves can also be cooked and are delicious. You will not find these in your neighborhood grocery store, but I have seen them in farmers’ markets.
If you are growing okra, or have a friend that is, pick a mess of the young tender leaves. Wash the leaves well. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté some thinly sliced onions. When the onions begin to color add three or four cloves of sliced garlic and some red pepper flakes. Cook for about 30 seconds and add the drained leaves. Using tongs, turn the leaves over and over until they begin to wilt. Add ½ cup of water and a couple of tablespoons of cider vinegar. Cover, reduce the heat and cook until tender. This will take about 30 minutes. The leaves can develop as much, if not more, of the slime as the pods do. The addition of vinegar and sautéing over medium-high heat removes that texture.
During the Civil War, coffee became very scarce. Blockades made it almost impossible to get in the South. Many things were tried as a coffee substitute, but by far, okra seed became the favorite. To this day, okra seed “coffee” is available and is becoming increasingly popular among those trying to reduce their caffeine intake.
Okra seed coffee is available on the internet for those adventurous souls; it is really easy to make. Harvest mature pods that have been allowed to dry on the plant. When the pod is dry and crispy from the sun, split open the pod and remove the seeds. Place the seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat and toast. Some of the seeds will pop so cover the pan when this begins to happen and keep the pan moving. When the seeds have taken on a color just slightly lighter than coffee, the seeds are ready. Grind them just like coffee but be careful. Okra seeds will grind much faster than coffee beans. Brew just like you would brew coffee.
Now that we have made okra leaf greens, and we have made okra seed coffee, let’s make okra the way that Louise loves it best. This is a casserole with okra, onions, Rotel tomatoes, cheddar cheese and a panko cheesy topping. I have included the recipe at the end of this column. Serve this to those who would never think to add okra.
If you still haven’t had enough okra, I have also included a simple recipe for pickled okra. This is one of my favorites.