Okra is one of those foods I hear of from time to time, but have never actually cooked, and I consider myself a pretty avid cook and a reasonably adventurous eater. So I started thinking, this mysterious little pod probably has a few of our readers stumped, too. Now that July is well underway, the time is right to give this peak-season veggie the attention it deserves. And so, I present to you, an Introduction to Okra.
What is it? While it may look like some sort of rigid pepper, okra actually belongs to the same family of flowering plants as cotton and cacao. You may have heard it referred to as ladies’ fingers, bhindi, bamia, ochro or gumbo. The bright green pod is thought to have originated in Northeast Africa, and some compare its flavor to that of zucchini or eggplant. Okra sometimes gets a bad rap because of the gooey liquid it tends to release when cooked, but if prepared properly and used creatively, okra can be super tasty and can enhance all sorts of dishes.
When and were do I find it? Okra is available year-round in the south, but only shows up in the rest of the country in the summer months, when it’s in its high season. You may have to do some research to find it in your particular region, but generally fresh okra can be found at Indian food stores, well-stocked produce markets, and many specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods.
How do I pick it? Look for fresh okra that is bright green without bruises or blemishes. Choose pods that are pliable, yet firm, and go for the smaller ones (3-4 inches in length), as these will be the most tender.
How do I store it? Okra has a short shelf life of only a day or two (after that it tends to get slimy…yuck!). Refrigerate in a ventilated bag and wait to wash the pods until right before preparing them. You can also freeze it for up to six months (wash & remove stems first).
How do I cook it? Okra can be cooked whole (remove the stems), or sliced into slivers or rounds. The sticky substance released from the pods acts as a great thickener for gumbos and soups, or if you’re looking to minimize its gooeyness, cooking the okra whole, pan searing it at high heat, stewing it, or braising it will work best. Breading and frying okra, either in a sauté pan or a deep fryer, is another popular preparation, and yields a nice crispy bite.
Is it healthy? Yes! Okra is high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, and folate. Not only that, but the vegetable is rich with antioxidants, and is among the very lowest-calorie vegetables, weighing in at only 33 calories per cup.
Do you have suggested recipes? Always. Here are a few of our favorites (pictured above):
1. Smashed Cayenne & Cornmeal Crusted Fried Okra
2. Pickled Okra
3. Okra and Corn Maque Choux
4. Skillet-Roasted Okra and Shrimp
5. Chicken-and-Okra Gumbo
Have I convinced you yet that okra is worth your time?? I sure hope so! Check back in next week for another post, and until then, happy cooking!