Sunday, August 21, 2011

Okra, or "that Southern vegetable"

I thought I would do a blog about okra, since that's the only thing coming out of my garden right now and in quite abundance. Okra is originally from Africa having come over with the slaves in colonial days. The plants it grows on can be as small a foot or two tall to over 10 feet (as mine now are). The pods grow pointing up and are best when smaller, 3-4 inches long as they tend to get woody, less tender and less juicey as they get bigger. Most popular in Cajun and Creole dishes (thanks to Louisiana for keeping the South on the culinary map), it is essential in several dishes, most notable being gumbo. Gumbo itself is a word that comes from the Angolan word for okra. It can be eaten fried, pickled (yes, pickled!! It is quite good this way too. Look for it in specialty shops and Walmart), stewed, gumboed and added to soups.

As the harvest comes daily from this veggie, I generally slice them in rounds and put them in a single layer on a sheet pan and then freeze them. When they are fully frozen I transfer to a zipper bag and store in the freezer until needed. I will pull these out, bread them and fry them- the way my kids like it best. I also add it to soups and in gumbo. When buying them, get only pods that are green without any brown spots and they should be fully plump and not shriveled. Trim the stem button off and add to the compost. It is edible, but generally a bit tough to chew.

So on to gumbo. The dish synonymous with okra. First brown some sliced onions in a pot, as in onion soup. The pods should be washed and then cut into rounds. Add them to the pot and cook for 40-45 minutes until the okra reduces down and becomes "ropy" and very slimy. Add your broth and other gumbo ingredients and finish the gumbo. The slimy okra will act as the thickener for the gumbo and give it the unique texture and flavor it is known for. The variants of gumbo are as many as there are cooks and every Cajun/Creole cook has their own version and way to tweek it. Seafood is most popular, as is sausage, rabbit, turtle and pork.

When eaten fresh or stewed, the sliminess usually turns off some people that are not used to it. Most Southerners are used to it and when fried, it looses the sliminess factor. Stewed with tomatoes and some basil or oregano, salt and pepper is another summer garden favorite. An another good thing about it is that it is usually pretty cheap, under $2.00 a pound. A pound of fried okra will certainly feed a good number of people. It will help stretch that vegetable soup a bit further (just ask Campbell's) and add more nutrients to it to boot.

Chef Cheapo may be cheap, but I'm not slimy like that used car salesman. That was just the okra

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