Okra by June Morgan
When one cringes at the thought of eating okra, the image may stem from the sight of someone sliding a mucilaginous object down the throat, an event from which children should be spared. But okra is actually a versatile and nutritious vegetable with an interesting history.
There is some dispute as to its origins. While South Asia claims it, the diverse varieties in West Africa offer support for that origin also. Accounts as early as the 13th century put okra in Egypt and continuing its spread around the shores of the Mediterranean. It is found as far as New Guinea, India, Pakistan, Japan and Brazil, all with different names. Some Swahili version of “gumbo” from Africa is the name with which we are most familiar as the southern American import probably came directly from Africa during the slave trade. According to Thomas Jefferson, it was well established in Virginia by 1781 and common by 1800.
Okra is one of the easiest plants to grow in our warm southern climate, not requiring coddling or anything but ordinary soil, and surviving even the Texas heat when everything else is suffering. It should be planted when the soil is warm, at least a week to ten days after the last frost date. Plant several seeds in hills 12-24” apart and thin them when about 3” tall to one plant per hill. To accelerate germination the seeds can be soaked overnight and wrapped in moist paper towels. Started plants are readily available in garden stores. Harvest pods at least every other day when about 2-3” long with sharp shears so as not to injure the plant. If they are difficult to cut, the pods are probably too old to eat but best put in the compost pile so as not to sap the strength of the plant. It is recommended to use gloves and sleeves in order to protect hands and arms from the prickly hairs.
The plants have the common problems of aphids and cabbage worms. Natural predators, BT, and insecticidal soap are good controls especially if used early.
Okra plants produce lovely flowers, resembling those of hibiscus and hollyhocks, to which they are related, and can be used as indoor décor. Old mature pods can be used for seed and dried arrangements. If desired, some plants can be reserved for those purposes while the others are harvested for their young edible pods. Harvested okra doesn’t last long even in the refrigerator and should be used within two days. However, it freezes and cans well in the raw or amended state.
The nutritional value of okra – high soluble and insoluble fiber, high B6, folic acid and other vitamins and minerals- makes it worthwhile to explore the many ways of preparing it. Almost every restaurant offers it coated with cornmeal and fried as a side dish, but other methods are less caloric. It has a thickening power useful for stews, gumbo and goes well with shellfish, corn, tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables. It can be stir fried with minimal oil and served with soy sauce. The stickiness will dissolve with long cooking or an acidic agent such as lemon juice or vinegar. Cajun or vegetarian cookbooks are especially helpful in creating a delightful and nutritious addition to the cook’s repertoire.