OKRA-HATERS! STOP MALIGNING A VEGETABLE YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND OR HAVEN’T HAD COOKED RIGHT!
OKRA-LOVERS! LEARN A NEW WAY TO ADORE THOSE GREEN PODS!
EITHER WAY, DO IT QUICKLY, RIGHT NOW, BEFORE SUMMER DEFINITIVELY ENDS.
(PLUS, TWO DON’T-MISS BOOKS, AN EXAMPLE OF YANKEE WTF-NESS, RACISM IN THE KITCHEN, AND THE QUESTION OF SLIMINESS, DEALT WITH ONCE AND FOR ALL)
People who say they don’t like okra, who complain about its so-called “sliminess” more about this later) have never had my slow-cooked Greek-style okra (click to get right to the recipe) caramelized with garlic and tomato jam.
Warning: this dish is time-consuming to make. Well, not to make, but to cook… It takes awhile. And after all that, it’s not photogenic.
But oh, my. Is it ever swooningly delicious. I have never met a person, including many a declared okra-hater, who didn’t fall for it in a big way.
I have made converts of many in this latter group, people who swore to me with absolute certainty that they abhorred okra. But so delighted were at least three of them by this preparation that they weren’t too proud to tell me, “You’re right, I love this.”
(Note: there’s a subset of people who say “I don’t like okra except fried.” To me, “I don’t like okra except fried,” doesn’t count as liking okra. It’s liking fried. Many people would happily eat fried twist-ties or bungee cords and proclaim them delicious. Case closed.)
Let’s move on, shall we?
DON’T RUSH FALL
This is the time of year when the grand poobahs of food media like to tell you how relieved they are that summer is almost over.
That yes, you loved your grill, but now it’s time to roast.
That yes, melons and stone fruits (like peaches and cherries), were all very well, but now it’s time for apples and pears.
That at last you don’t have to figure out what the to do with all that too-prolific zucchini, and instead you can and should begin to gloat in fall’s abundance of velvety sweet bright orange winter squashes.
They have a point: seasonality, with localness, are always and ever the two starting points for good ingredients.
But bear in mind that many food poobahs write to an editorial calendar, not to what is actually in their garden or market. (I’m sympathetic… when I owned an inn, I once made a Christmas dinner for a magazine article spread… in August. )
But the fact is, it’s not quite fall in many places.
So I say, please: not yet with the pumpkins and apples. Not quite yet.
I say, be here now. (Especially if your “here” has been warmer this year than usual and shows no signs of cooling down yet, or is in the South.)
I say, don’t hurry fall, and certainly not winter, when your particular farmer’s market may still be overflowing with the last gorgeous burst of summer fruits and vegetables.
I say, this might just be the perfect time for you to expand your understanding and enjoyment of summer’s cornucopia of vegetables… especially okra.
I say, if you think you hate okra, let me teach you to love it. And if you already love it, let me show you a brand new way to love it. It’s right here: my recipe for Greek-Style Smothered Okra.
You can go on and make it right now. I won’t be offended. Or you can read on, and delve into a few stories this wondrous plant, and the regional prejudices and preferences with which it contends.
DEPARTMENT OF: OH, GIVE ME A BREAK!
Nineteen years ago, and I remember this as if it were nineteen minutes ago.
I did not then have a smart-phone, so I don’t have pictures to back me up. But I swear what I am about to tell you happened.
It was early fall, 2003, the second year I was living in Vermont (before I had come to my senses and returned to Arkansas…’Nother story).
I was at my favorite Vermont farm-stand, Walker’s.
If a farm-stand can be said to curate vegetables, Walker’s did.
Everything they grew, they grew all organically, with attention, passion and pride. Each fruit and vegetable was displayed irresistibly, overflowing its own basket or bin or refrigerator section.
Most produce had hand-lettered signs and cards, bragging and informing: variety names, provenance.
Over the years, I learned to wait for “Famous Glastonbury Peaches”, and to choose the small globe-shaped “Oddball squashes.”
In October, I gloated in the dozens and dozens of local varieties of apples I had never heard of or seen elsewhere: Pearmain Abbey, Hidden Rose, Sheep’s Nose, Cox’s Golden Pippin.
But one day, early in my Vermont years, right around Labor Day, I saw one particular Walker produce card which … gave me pause.
It sat beside a small, pitifully tiny, basket that contained about ten or twelve measly little pods of okra in it.
And it said, “OKRA 45¢ a pod (curiosity /novelty).”
I gave no outward sign, afflicted as I was with a combination of laughter, horror, distress, homesickness and disbelief. I suppressed a belly-laugh. I suppressed tears.
I didn’t mention it to anyone at Walkers, or to any of my Vermont pals. I knew they wouldn’t get it.
45¢ a pod? Curiosity?
But oh my god, I could not wait to tell my Southern pals about it.
At the very same time of year I saw that sign at Walker, I knew that back home in Arkansas — and yes, Vermont was home too, but Arkansas was really home (as I discovered when I returned after 15 years in Vermont) — I knew the farmer’s markets were at that same moment overflowing with okra.
Okra by the quart. Okra by the bushel basket. Okra, at $2 or $3 or $4 a pound. Not by the freakin’ pod.
Happy, abundant, green, deeply appreciated, eagerly awaited. Okra, to be carried home and feasted upon. Fried and pickled and cooked with tomatoes and put in gumbo.
And to those who were true cognoscenti, as Greek-Style Smothered Okra.
I tried to raise okra in my Vermont garden the following year, and the year after. The plants were beautiful, and I was hopeful. But it just wasn’t hot enough there, not for enough days to please okra.
My own yield was just as pitiful as that of Walker Farm; 5 or 6 pods.
Say what you like about global warming, though: by the time I left Vermont, 15 years after sighting that sign, Walker Farm was able to grow okra by the basket, sell it by the pound ($4.99; when they had it, I bought it all. I wonder who buys it now that I am gone?).
Though Walker Farm didn’t have okra in anything like the quantities we grow it in Arkansas.
BACK TO AFRICA: RACISM IN THE KITCHEN & GARDEN
The reason okra didn’t thrive in Vermont is this: because it’s native to West Africa. To get enthusiastic, okra likes, no, needs, tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates.
Although now grown in such climates the world over, one of its common names in Africa was gombo (the origin of the name of the famed New Orleans stew, gumbo — though not all gumbos contain okra).
Okra, like sesame seeds, watermelon, and black-eyed peas, was among the many inadvertent gifts — more accurate to say ‘thefts’ — that came to America through enslaved people, and became part of the DNA of American cuisine.
For one of the more fascinating reads on this subject, check out Micheal Twitty’s brilliant if rambling meditation on and exploration of food and origins, slavery and freedom, and the complications of identity, the James Beard Award-winning The Cooking Gene.
And, on this same subject but from a very different angle, I think perhaps especially if you are a white person who is wrestling sincerely with the question of what ‘white privilege’ really means, Toni Tipton Martin’s extraordinary The Jemima Code takes it into the kitchen, that intimate, vital, but in some cases oh-so-cruel place. This one took the top of my head off.
And now back to okra.
(And isn’t that an example of ‘white privilege’ right there? I think it is. Because I can go right back to okra, to neutral, after having given a scant nod to its African origins.)
But, I believe, if you are a person of color, you are almost always seen first by your skin color, and, though no longer enslaved, you still carry the chains of others’ assumptions about what this means and who it makes you— especially when those others are part of institutions like law enforcement or education. You can almost never coast into neutral, just being yourself, in the eyes of the world, at least the white-majority world.
And this is perhaps, and tragically, especially true in America today, where the twisted zombie virus of racism has revived. A disease that, like measles, one might have hoped or supposed — if one were a liberal white, at least —was virtually eradicated, but which has come roaring back loud and clear.
If one were black, I suspect, one would never have entertained this delusion.
Okra. As I was saying.
Okra is a member of the mallow family, like hollyhocks and hibiscus, and also — who would have thought it? — cotton and cacao.
Grow okra in your own garden, and it will amaze you, or it did me — spectacular flowers, sometimes almost as large as teacups, at least very much like hollyhocks.
And the pods themselves?
To me they appear highly suggestive. Perhaps downright dirty.
They no more emerge then they head straight up.
Unlike, say, bean pods, which dangle downward, almost shyly, or tomatoes, which hide themselves, coyly modest, in scarves of hairy, fragrant leaves, okra pods grow tip up, pointing to the sky — proud little vegetal erections.
AS PROMISED: THE SLIMINESS QUESTION ADDRESSED, & A REALLY TERRIBLE SALAD WHICH YOU, KNOWING BETTER, WILL NEVER MAKE
First of all, don’t call it slimy, call it “mucilaginous.”
Oh, wait… that may not be much better.
This “mucilage” — what is it? Cut open a longish pod of okra, and leave it out for a few minutes. Look closely: it’s the shiny juice, beading up on the tiny edible seeds and interior pulp, sap-like and oozing.
Made of glycoproteins and sugar residues known as exopolysacharrides, some describe the texture of okra’s mucilage as gelatinous, others as viscous. I’ve heard it called syrupy, gluey, gluey, and yes, slimy. It is all those things, but only if prepared badly, by a cook who doesn’t understand okra’s properties and quirks.
The worst-prepared okra-containing dish I ever had was a green salad with raw okra, described proudly on the menu of an upscale Italian restaurant as “Local hydroponic greens, pickled vegetables, cannellini beans, house vinaigrette, Buffalo Peaks feta.”
Now, I had had this salad, at this restaurant, several times, and knew it to be good, with a changing melange of fresh and picked vegetables.
But one particular night, the chef added okra.
Raw, not pickled. Sliced, not whole. And, I imagine, those slices had sat out for at least 30 or 40 minutes, maybe more, before being served. Every bite of the whole salad was unpleasantly (yes, I’ll say it) slimy, slippery, viscous… even the innocent lettuce leaves were coated in mucuous-like (sorry) stringiness.
If I did not already know and love okra, it would have turned me off forever. (If I did not already know and love that restaurant, it would have turned me off them forever, too. But because they are in general better than that, I am not naming names).
That chef clearly did not know his okra.
But this brings us to the important point: this need never happen to you. How and if you cook okra, and for how long, has everything to do with the texture in the finished dish. Okra’s mucilage is a shape-shifter, or, rather, a texture-shifter. And there is a lot of misinformation out there about okra preparing so as to avoid mucilage in its unpleasant manifestations.
Here is some correct understanding, which will enable you to understand how to treat okra right. Not only will you never experience such manifestations as the Salad of Doom, you’ll discover many dishes in which okra is just glorious, and in a way particular to itself, delectable and unlike any other.
Consider the following:
1. POD LENGTH. Choose short pods. The younger, shorter pods have less mucilage, and they are also more tender and flavorful. (At the Farmer’s Market, I walk around and inspect everyone’s okra. I buy from whichever booth has the smallest pods).
2. BECOME AN OKRA-WHISPERER. Know what you’re dealing with, first hand (or mouth). Eat a small pod raw and whole, just to understand how good are the distinctive gifts of okra, to experience its good green taste, a little sweet, vegetal. And, it’s crunch! But if you try this with an older pod, one longer than 2 1/2 or 3 inches, and you chew it slowly, or if you do this with one you’ve cut open and let sit for a few minutes before you eat it — you’ll find out what all the haters hate.
3. ACIDITY. Acidity cuts mucilage. That’s why pickled okra is so good. You get that distinctive flavor and crunch, the lovely little seeds… and not one trace of sliminess. That’s also why many successful okra recipes contain tomatoes (like my Greek-Style Smothered Okra) or vinegar or lemon or lime juice (which is often part of Indian okra dishes, a lot of which with tomatoes as well). However: this only works to a point, as witness the Salad of DOOM described above: the vinaigrette did not cut the slime; rather, the okra slimed the vinaigrette.
4. INTACTNESS. Keeping the pods intact during cooking is also helpful; cut off the stem end, and you release the mucilage. But! The method of cooking and length of cooking time is also important. You can get by with slicing okra if you cook it right (see 6).
5. DRY HEAT IS YOUR FRIEND. Dry heat — in an oven or on a grill — also countermands mucilage. There are some lovely, lovely marinated whole-pod okra recipes in Passionate Vegetarian, where the pods are strung on a skewer and grilled: divine, if fussy, and not the least slimy.
6. THERE IS A RIGHT WAY TO COOK SLICED OKRA. If however you are going to slice the pods crosswise, which tends to bring out the you-know-what, here is a very weird principle to understand — okra’s mucilage, when cooked in liquid (added to a soup or stew), does indeed ooze out. Besides being oozy, it also thickens the liquid… but only for awhile. Then it unthickens.
A food scientist could tell you why; I can’t. I can only tell you that this is true: the mucilaginous materials break down. (True also of cornstarch used as a thickener. It works like a charm, but cook it too long and then the starch unthickens.) If I cook okra in a lot of liquid, I cook it long enough so the mucilage reaches this second, vanished stage.
In general though, I think okra is better either dry-cooked or cooked in just a little liquid and aromatics, and then carefully sweated, a long, long time, over low heat. This is the essential trick of not only my Greek-Style Smothered Okra, but the excellent Indian ways with okra, such as Aloo Bhindi, which when done right is irresistible: okra and potatoes tempered with aromatic whole spices, slow-cooked with onions & fresh tomatoes.
7. IF YOU INSIST ON FRYING. I know, I’ve already cast shade on fried okra, and those who say it’s the only way they’ll eat it. But I will grudgingly admit that this method of preparation is the aces for mucilage-prevention. By slicing the okra and then breading it (some use seasoned cornmeal, some a combination of cornmeal and flour; either uses the mucilage as kind of benign glue), and then throwing the whole thing into bubbling fat — voila, no sliminess. However… it’s fried. And it’s hard to overestimate just how health-harming fried foods are.
LUSH, LIFE-AFFIRMATIVE PLATES
But I would rather conclude with this: so many delectable dishes support health. Okra, cooked almost any way but fried, is one of them.
Like anything and anyone, treat it right, give it just a little bit of understanding and encouragement, and it will perform for you spectacularly.
Since early summer, I have been eating many dinners of of “just” vegetables, a practice I will continue through fall. One is pictured at the top of this post; a tomato stuffed with Provence-style greens and bread crumbs, a quick sauté of sweet, multi-colored shredded carrots, and good old Greek-Style Smothered Okra.
Since early August, and for a few more weeks, these plates often include it, fixed just the way I’ve told you about here. I combine this with other vegetables (maybe just one if I’m dining alone, anywhere up to 5 or 6 different ones if I’m cooking for others). But each vegetable is seasonal and local and attentively prepared and at the height of what I consider its essential powers… what I always hope for (in general terms) when I eat out and order a vegetable plate, but rarely get unless I make it myself.
Look, I can well remember when I was first exposed to vegetarian cooking, when I was 16 and living in a commune in Brooklyn. If the vegetarians cooked for two nights in a row, I would start jonesing for meat, and quietly slip off to the Atlantic Avenue area for Middle Eastern food, heavy on the lamb.
And yet, I quit eating meat — its taste stopped appealing to me — when I was 22. And here I am, 66. An age no one believes, when I tell them, based on the way I look. Of course this is flattering (I like to say, ” ‘ You don’t look that old’ is the new ‘Have you lost some weight?'”). But the credit, I think, should go to all those years of consuming fruits and vegetables by the truckload. (Okay, and I use sunscreen every day, and have since I was 30. And I have fortunate genes. My mother was barely wrinkled at 98. Still.)
It takes a while for tastes to change. I know that for many people, even those who would enjoy every bite of what I serve on such vegetable plates, there would still be a perception of it missing something.
But these just plain not-so-plain vegetables, this okra – man, do they do it for me.
I hope to be on this planet for many more seasons of okra, and everything else in its turn.
And I love knowing that plates of vegetables like these will help me do it.