One of summer’s most controversial vegetables is okra. It seems people either love it or despise it.
Fresh okra is in season now through September, and if you fall into the second camp and want to give it another go, my best advice is to try it fresh.
A member of the mallow family, okra is a close cousin of hibiscus and hollyhock. A beautiful 6-foot annual with heart-shaped leaves and large, yellow, hibiscus-like flowers, it produces edible, bright green seed pods, at their tender best about 3-4 inches in length.
The pods are ridged and slightly fuzzy and contain rows of edible seeds that release a viscous liquid when chopped. Okra fans love this because the juice provides a natural thickening to soups, stews and gumbo. But this is the same quality that turns many people off.
It’s an acquired taste, just as many other good things in life.
Its flavor is quite subtle, complimenting strong, spicy ingredients well. Chef Adam Hegsted of Wandering Table considers it a “great” summer vegetable and features it on his seasonal menu. “While it’s more common in the South, it actually grows in the Northwest as well,” he said.
Hegsted is well aware that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. “The gooey-ness sometimes throws people off, but if you cook it differently, you don’t really get that. They are delicious deep fried, and they also make amazing pickles.”
Here, Hegsted shares his recipe for Summer Okra Succotash, which “speaks of summertime. That’s what we are always shooting for. The food speaking of a time and place.”
Originating from North Africa, okra was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians in the 12th century B.C. It spread throughout Africa and the Middle East, where the dark pods were typically cooked in stews. Some pods were intentionally left on the plant to grow large and dry in the sun. The seeds were then harvested, toasted and ground, and made into a drink similar to coffee.
Okra migrated to the Caribbean and the Americas in the 1700s, brought by slaves from West Africa, and were introduced to Western Europe soon after. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned to use okra to thicken soups and gumbo, which is why we so often associate it with Southern cooking.
Okra is known by many names. In India, it’s called “bhindi,” in France, “gombo,” in the Middle East, “bamya” or “bamies,” and in English-speaking countries, “lady’s fingers,” in reference to okra’s long, elegantly tapered shape.
My Egyptian father called okra “bamya” and often made a simple Egyptian dish that I grew up eating and loving. Quickly sautéed with onion and garlic, and seasoned with cumin, coriander and lemon, the okra was seared and cooked al dente rather than stewed, which lessened its sliminess. Served over rice, this became a simple, flavorful vegetarian staple in our home.
When buying fresh okra, look for small, young pods that are no more than 3-4 inches long. These are most tender. Okra becomes fibrous and tough when over-mature.
Choose pods that are clean, fresh and green and that snap crisply when broken in half, and avoid those that look dull and dry.
Wait to wash okra until just before cooking; moisture will cause the pods to become slimy. Store untrimmed, uncut okra in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper.
When washing okra, if the pods are especially fuzzy, rub them with a kitchen towel or with a vegetable brush to remove some of the fibers. If cooking whole pods, trim a tiny slice from the stem end and the fibrous tip. When cutting slices, trim the stem end more deeply. To minimize okra’s thickening juices, keep cooking time at a minimum, adding it to recipes during only the last 10 minutes.
Summer Okra Succotash
From Adam Hegsted of Wandering Table
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons sweet onion, diced
1 roasted red pepper, dry roasted over a flame or broiler, diced
1 corn cob, dry roasted over a flame or broiler, cut corn off of cob
1 cup fresh beans (fava, lima, soy or garbanzo, blanched, chilled, peeled, can mix varieties)
2 cups fresh okra, sliced, blanch and chilled
1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons basil, fresh chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
In a large saute pan, heat butter and cook garlic and onion until translucent. Add in peppers, corn, beans and okra. Cook until edges start to brown.
Add vinegar and 1 tablespoon of water and cook for 30 seconds. Turn off heat and add chili flakes, basil and salt. Stir in butter and season to taste if needed.
Whole Roasted Okra
1 pound okra
Drizzle olive oil
Generous 5-finger pinch of salt
Zest of 1 lemon, divided
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Wash and dry okra. Dry EXTRA well. Trim a little off the each end. Place in a bowl and toss with just enough olive oil to very lightly coat, so the salt and pepper sticks to it. Add salt and pepper, and toss well.
Add ½ of the lemon zest and toss (saving the other half for garnish). Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put in the hot oven.
Toss every 5 minutes for 12-14 minutes. Okra will darken in spots, and this is OK. Remove from oven, sprinkle okra with the rest of the zest and and thyme leaves and serve immediately.
½ pound fresh okra
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion
5 cloves garlic, sliced
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
2 roma tomatoes, diced
Wash and dry okra. Cut both ends off, and slice into ½-inch rings.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and sauté, stirring often for 2-3 minutes, until just tender. Add garlic, turning heat to medium, and stir 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.
Add the okra. Stir often over medium heat for about 10-12 minutes. At this point they should look vibrant green and be cooked al dente. You want them just tender, yet still slightly firm. Add spices and salt. Keep stirring and saute for 2 more minutes until the spices toast a little. Add the diced tomatoes and cook 2-3 more minutes, just until the tomato juices begin to release. Don’t overcook or let the tomatoes get too soft. Squeeze lemon over dish and serve.
Serve over rice in a bowl for a light vegetarian meal.
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com.