Megan Scott has been both a cheese maker and a goat herder. Currently, she’s working with her husband, John Becker, on updates to the American classic cookbook ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and has recently overseen production of their new website. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

The okra accident

Ever had this vegetable fresh?

By
July 18, 2012

As with many stories of great innovation, I had nothing particular in mind when I planted a patch of okra in my garden this year. I simply knew that okra was one of the few crops that could be planted without worry of drought or infestation in this climate. I was told that it would yield no matter what, and so I chose the most likely-sounding candidate from my seed catalogue: Hill Country Red Okra.

Having lost most of my garden last year to drought, extreme heat, and insects, I was determined to see at least one crop to fruition this year, even if the crop in question was something I wasn’t entirely sure how to use. It was one of those act-now-think-later scenarios that often end in catastrophe, but that sometimes, serendipitously, results in something marvelous.

Okra is something of a maligned vegetable, almost exclusively relegated to the deep fryer, to pickling, or to pots of gumbo. Not that fried okra isn’t a mighty fine thing. In fact, okra lends itself especially well to frying. But you have to ask yourself why the current trend towards heightened creativity in food hasn’t extended itself to okra.

Young okra.

In spite of its being a marvelous summer producer and a close relative of hibiscus, you won’t find articles in glossy food magazines about the merits of okra, nor will you be likely to find it on the menu of the new, hip neighborhood restaurant. A few older cookbooks list some lackluster solutions for using an okra overload, but, after reading these unenthusiastic scribbles, I came to ask myself why, if even the homely cauliflower can have a resurgence, okra continues to be the red-headed stepchild of the vegetable world.

Okra’s downfall is the selfsame trait that makes it so useful. It has a mucilaginous inner membrane that is conducive to thickening soups and sauces. However, most people simply refer to this quality as “slimy,” and the last time I checked, “slimy” is still considered negative.

To my mind, though, okra’s wonderful flavor overrules its unfortunate gooey tendencies, and the best way to simply taste okra is to try it raw.

I was 20 years old before I tasted raw okra. My family is solidly in the fried-okra camp, with the occasional stewed-okra-and-tomato dish to round things out a bit. So, as a child, I knew okra almost solely as a fried food. One hot afternoon in the garden changed all that. I found that raw okra has an almost addictive quality to it — crisp, flavorful, and easy to eat. In fact, raw okra has come to be one of my favorite summer flavors.

To eat okra this way, you need to pick or purchase it reasonably small — no longer than 3 to 4 inches, about 3/4 inch in diameter. As okra grows larger, it becomes stringy, tough, and spiny. Bigger isn’t always better.

Fresh okra tastes fabulous with buttermilk ranch dressing.

In this way, okra makes a fabulous addition to a summer crudité platter alongside a simple dip such as a tart, homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. It can also be part of a bagna cauda spread. And do I need to tell you that okra makes, as do most vegetables, a fabulous vehicle for soft goat cheese or hummus?

I wish I could give you a solid recipe for okra slaw. As I brainstormed for this post, my highest hopes for okra involved a crisp and tangy slaw. Unfortunately, my tests were so gelatinous as to be almost . . . disturbing. In fact, to say it was like watching horror movie special effects is about accurate.

I found that if you cut the okra, cauterize the slices in a hot skillet (not nonstick) until slightly charred, and then compose the slaw, the gummy effects of the okra are minimized. However, having to go to that kind of effort to put together an edible okra slaw just went against my raising. My advice is to stick to cabbage.

Bhindi kurkuri, ready for frying.

Cooking okra well requires almost no finesse. The best techniques for avoiding slimy-okra syndrome involve dry heat. Roasting and grilling are two unsung methods for coaxing a lot of flavor from okra spears while discouraging sliminess. Simply toss the okra, halved lengthwise or not, in a simple marinade, and grill or roast over high heat.

One of my new favorite methods for coping with abundant okra is a quick and hot sauté. The edges of the thinly sliced okra begin to carbonize and add rich flavor to the dish. Add some onions, garlic, a jalapeño, and garam masala, and you have a marvelous side dish.

Actually, okra and Indian food are made for one another. Where American cuisine falls short when it comes to applications for okra, Indian cuisine shines. One popular Indian okra dish, bhindi kurkuri, involves tossing sliced okra with spices and chickpea flour and then frying the slices to golden perfection. For a textural contrast, serve with raita and chopped cilantro.

Okra fritters.

Finally, consider the fritter. This recipe is directly inspired by Scott Peacock, the former chef at the Watershed restaurant in Atlanta. In my opinion, one of the most satisfying treatments for peak-season summer vegetables is the fritter. By combining flavorful produce, a simple batter, and a hot skillet, you harness the natural sugars in the vegetables to create a browned, crisp homage to the season.

The same technique may be applied to corn, grated and pressed squash or zucchini, minced eggplant, peppers, and many other summer vegetables. The resulting fritters are excellent served up with a simple sauce, such as a homemade ranch dressing, or a basic salsa fresca and a little sour cream.

Okra may not be the most inspiring ingredient to work with at first glance, but it happens to be remarkably versatile and requires only a little finesse to coax out its wonderful flavor. With a little experimentation and an open mind, you may find yourself saying more often than you’d expect, “Please pass the okra.”

Related recipe: Okra Fritters; recipe: Homemade Ranch Dressing; recipe: Bhindi Kurkuri

Subscribe
Comments
There are 10 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by anonymous on Jul 18, 2012 at 8:29 AM PDT

We like them tossed with olive oil, salt, smoked paprika and onion powder, then roasted until they just start to split open. We roast them whole. You grab them by the tops and stick the rest in your mouth and bite it off.. Yum.

shris

2. by Farmer Margie on Jul 18, 2012 at 8:47 AM PDT

Though I haven’t tried this myself (yet), my farm hand assures me that if you liberally sprinkle fresh lime juice on the okra, it cuts out the sliminess - might work to make the slaw. (We normally eat it Indian style in Bhindi Bhaji, or as okra pickles (lacto-fermented in brine, with some hot peppers to spice ‘em up).

3. by Teresa on Jul 18, 2012 at 7:40 PM PDT

Cannot wait to try the okra fritters.....reminds me of the corn fritters you first made from the American Girl cookbook......those were great too!

4. by Betsy Hinderliter on Jul 19, 2012 at 9:23 AM PDT

Hi. I LOVE okra and grew up growing, cooking and eating it. Most important tip is to harvest early when the pods are tender. I like slimy okra (weird, I know) but also fried (a big treat) and stewed with others veggies like tomatoes. It is also great pickled whole with garlic and chilies if you like spicy hot. I am also planning on creating my own recipes this summer- just bought a ‘mess’ of okra this morning from a local farmer. Fried okra makes a crunchy topping too, you can visit my blog post, http://southbyse.com/2012/07/06/got-okra/, to see how I prepare it. It is stupendous on dishes with grits (or polenta)!

5. by anonymous on Jul 20, 2012 at 11:18 AM PDT

I picked up my farm share yesterday, and got a beautiful load of okra. The people around me were dubious when I said I eat it raw--I had one there to prove the point--and we discussed possible ways to cook it. Perfect timing, I’ll send this link on.

6. by Kay Morgan on Jul 23, 2012 at 4:54 PM PDT

I’m typing this while eating a bowl of okra. Being a purist at heart, I like my okra prepared as simply as possible That means simmering it in acidulated water (a splash of vinegar to prevent sliminess) until it changes color. Fish it out with a slotted spoon, sprinkle lightly with salt, add some good unsalted butter.Serve it with Southern-style cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet I have yet to find a wine to accompany it. I’d appreciate suggestions.

7. by anonymous on Jul 25, 2012 at 2:26 PM PDT

Okra isn’t something that we Aussies have taken to heart. I hear you about the droughty bit and if I could find a way to include this veggie in my diet after first growing it myself I may just be able to overlook that hideous sliminess. Raw might be the answer but it would have to be pretty darned good to grow a crop of it to consume raw...The jury is out on okra in this camp and likely to be out for some time to come!

8. by Jenn on Jul 26, 2012 at 12:03 PM PDT

Yumm! Amazing idea’s for a veggie (hibiscus? I thought it was a hollyhock type ‘cause of the flower) ; I never thought of roasting them!?!? Wonderous! I can’t wait to try the fritters and Kay’s suggestion of acidulated water to prevent sliminess. Does anyone know what mucilage is; check out this website for tooooo much information:

http://www.neurophys.wisc.edu/ravi/okra/

9. by Barbara Lamb on Sep 21, 2012 at 8:31 AM PDT

Okra is wonderful on the barbecue too. We just skewer them and add a squeeze of lemon juice. After this is hot dry summer the okra in my south-eastern Ontario garden stands as tall as me.

10. by anonymous on Sep 25, 2012 at 7:09 AM PDT

Since I read in this article about roasting them, we’ve started making a big batch of “okra fries” every time we get them in our CSA. Easy and decadent tasting, but healthy. Toss them in olive oil in a cast iron pan. Roast at about 425 for around 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with sea salt, and dip in your favorite sauce. (I made one with mayo, horseradish, and yogurt that went over well)

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [http://www.example.com "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer


Advertisement
Dinner Guest

The gamification of cooking

Earning points

Most of the time with cooking and eating, the rules are clear.

Subscribe
Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer

Reviews

Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice