Okra and the South go together like two peas in a pod. It is especially plentiful right now at your local farmers’ market. A member of the hibiscus family, the okra plant has large showy yellow flowers with burgundy-tinged centers and thrives in heat and humidity. As the flowers fade, the fuzzy, ribbed seedpods begin to develop. The hardy plant flourishes in South Carolina during the hot, humid summer and early fall. It isn’t the easiest plant to pick. Okra is a bug-magnet and its spiny leaves contain a substance that causes the skin to itch. Even so, “You won’t see a garden in Columbia without it,” commented Irmo Women’s Club Co-President, Charlotte Wymer. The group started the area’s popular Okra Strut, held in September.
The plant came to America from Africa through the Atlantic slave trade. According to food historian, Dr. Jessica Harris, the word okra stems from a language in West Africa. It was also called “gumbo,” from the Angolan word, kin-gombo. A food staple since the colonial era, okra became a component in thick African stews called gumbos.
In areas of the Mediterranean, ripe okra seeds are valued for the edible cooking oil they release when pressed. Okra leaves are often cooked as greens. In Turkey, they are used in a medical preparation to soothe inflammation.
Okra contains Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, magnesium and is an excellent source of fiber. Researchers say it also contains the antioxidant compound, glutathione, which helps protect the body’s cells against cancer. Health experts say okra’s mucilage helps bind cholesterol and toxin-filled bile acids dumped into intestinal tract by the liver.
Okra can be stir-fried, microwaved, boiled, steamed, baked, and grilled. Okra is absolutely delicious stewed with tomatoes and onion and spooned over Carolina grits. The pods can be oven-roasted or skewered then grilled over a charcoal fire. Innovative Southern chefs serve okra in creative ways, like scattering the crispy pieces over green salads or soups like bread croutons. Recently at the Birmingham Art Museum, I ate a delicious dish of fresh grilled salmon served on a bed of succotash, topped with pieces crispy fried okra.
Fried okra is a real southern favorite. Food authority John T. Edge, considers fried okra “one of the Supreme Being’s greatest gifts to mankind.” Even people who dislike steamed or boiled okra pods that contain a natural, viscous juice or mucilage (that’s slime to Southerners), love the appealing crispy texture and addictive flavor of fried okra.
When fried in oil, the delicate cornmeal and flour coating seals in and transforms the gooey juice to an appealing creamy consistency. Just one bite and you are addicted – its like eating popcorn!
Tips for Buying & Cooking Okra
- Avoid buying tough, mature okra, longer than 4 inches. The pods should be velvety, bright green, blemish-free and dry. If you can’t easily push your fingernail through the outer skin of a pod, it is probably too tough.
- Fresh okra is best cooked the same day it is purchased. Store for a short time at a temperature no cooler than 45 degrees to avoid rapid decay.
- After washing okra, dry it immediately.
- To minimize the sticky, thick okra juices, cook the whole pods quickly. Southern cookbook author Damon Fowler lightly boils tiny pods in a heavy-bottomed saucepan three to four minutes in 1/4 cup of water with a little butter or olive oil.
- For long-cooking dishes like soups and stews, cut up the okra to release the sticky substance and take advantage of its thickening properties. Larger, less-tender pods are best cooked this way.
- Don’t cook okra in an aluminum pot, or it will turn an unappetizing, dark brown color. Use stainless steel.
- To eliminate okra slime, it may be helpful to saute it as a first step before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
- Middle Eastern cooks eliminate okra’s slimy texture by soaking the pods briefly in a vinegar-water bath. Cajun cooks agree that the secret to cooking okra is to add a little vinegar to the pot. Some Mediterranean cooks allow the sliced okra to air-dry overnight. Most Southerners don’t find the sticky substance a problem.
Susan Slack’s Southern Fried Okra
1 lb. tender young okra pods
2 tablespoons water
1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons flour
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
Black ground pepper, to taste
1 cup oil for frying
Wash okra and trim off tops. Cut into 1/2 inch slices. Whisk egg with water in a bowl. Toss in okra and coat well. In a separate large pan, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, and a generous amount of black pepper. With a slotted spoon, remove okra from egg mixture, allowing excess egg to drip back into the bowl. Add to pan of cornmeal coating and roll in the mixture. Heat a medium to large cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. When oil is hot, add okra to pan, creating a single layer. (Cook in two batches, if necessary.) Fry until crispy, turning occasionally. When okra is medium golden brown, remove from pan. Drain on paper towels; season again, to taste. Fry remaining okra. Serve hot.
You can eat it ‘straight-up’ or seasoned with hot sauce, ketchup, Asian spicy sweet-chile sauce or a custom blend of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and parsley, like the ladies of the Women’s Club who sell at least 1000 pounds each year at the Okra Strut. Makes 4 to 5 servings.
- Use buttermilk instead of beaten egg and water.
- Dust okra lightly with ground red pepper before frying.
- Add a small amount of bacon fat to the oil for a real southern flavor.
- Sprinkle crisp, chopped, cooked bacon over fried okra.
- Stir 1 finely minced garlic clove into pan of okra 2 to 3 minutes before it is done.
Stewed Okra and Tomatoes
4 slices of bacon or 3 tablespoons safflower oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh okra, trimmed, sliced or 3 to 4 cups sliced frozen okra, partially thawed
6 (7 to 8 ounce) ripe tomatoes, peeled, diced or 1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes 1 teaspoon sugar
Sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium saucepan, fry bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels, then chop coarsely. Set aside. Add onion to bacon drippings; sautÃ© 3 to 4 minutes until limp then stir in garlic. Add okra; continue stirring 2 or 3 minutes. Mix in tomatoes and sugar. Add salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer 20 to 25 minutes. Mix chopped bacon into the mixture. Serves 5 to 6.
To make Stewed Okra, Tomatoes and Corn, stir 1 to 1-1/2 cups fresh corn (cut off the cob) into the okra with the tomatoes.
This tasty appetizer snack is slightly adapted from a recipe that comes from the Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. The original sauce version calls for chopped cilantro, lime zest and fresh lime juice.
Dill Sauce (recipe below)
1 large egg
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin powder
1/2 pound fresh okra, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces (2 cups fresh), or 1 (10-ounce) box frozen cut okra, thawed
1/2 cup red bell pepper, cut in 1/4-inch dice
3 or 4 green onions, thin-sliced
1/2 cup cooked, aromatic long-grain rice
About 6 cups vegetable oil for frying
Make Dill Sauce. In a small bowl, whisk egg and cream to blend. Into a large bowl, sift flour, salt, black pepper and cumin. Toss in okra, bell pepper, and green onion; coat well. Blend egg and cream into vegetable mixture to form a chunky batter. Wait 15 minutes, then gently stir in rice.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. In a wok or 4- to 6-quart heavy pot, heat oil to 350 degrees F. With care, push 8 to 10 tablespoons of batter into the oil, one at a time. Fry until golden, turning once, for 3 to 5 minutes per batch.
Drain beignets on a rack set over paper towels, then transfer to a baking sheet. Keep warm in the oven while frying remaining beignets. (Maintain proper temperature of the frying oil.) Serve with the sauce. About 3 dozen snacks.
1 cup sour cream.
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dillweed
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
Blend all the ingredients. Cover and refrigerate until served, several hours or overnight.
Read Allison Askins food page today in the State Newspaper.
Photos by Susan Slack