Thursday, September 11, 2014

On the topic of okra …


Okra is one of those foods which tends to draw dichotomous responses from people. They either like it or they don't. Then of course, some people aren't quite sure what okra is. Interesting enough, okra's biologic and geographic origins are uncertain as well.

Okra is regarded as an allopolyploid. To a nerd like me who likes genetics, this is a rather fascinating term. It essentially means that okra has sets of chromosomes that have most likely come from two different species. Because okra doesn't occur as a "wild" species of plant, scientists presume that it was most likely deliberately developed by people by crossing two other plant species - can you say genetically modified organism i.e. GMO? Descriptions of okra date back to at least 13th century Egypt. Too bad we don't have access to these early agriculturists' field notes.

As I mentioned, the geographic origins of okra are uncertain. Different sources have attributed the origins of okra to southeast Asia, western Africa, and eastern Africa. Regardless of its origins, okra plants spread across the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. By the mid-1600s, it had been transported across the Atlantic to Brazil as a result of the slave trade. The earliest accounts of okra in North America date to the 1700s, and by 1800, it was well-established in the southeastern United States.
Where okra is grown in the world today - didn't expect to see so much grown in Europe
Today, okra is a common food in many parts of the world including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Balkan states, and the Caribbean, as well as the southeastern United States. Although the leaves of the plant are edible, the most commonly consumed part of the plant is the seed pod. The seeds, supposedly, can be dried and ground into coffee. I'm not a coffee aficionado so I don't think I will be attempting to make coffee from okra seeds.
Okra pod ready for harvest 
The okra pod is mucilaginous, meaning that it is slimy when cut open. The "slime" also serves as a thickening agent for dishes such as gumbo. Typically, the pods are sliced into coin shaped pieces prior to being used in culinary dishes. They can be prepared in a number of ways including breaded and deep-fried in cornmeal; steamed; broiled; prepared in curries, soups, and gumbos; or stewed with tomatoes. 
Cut up okra pieces ready for stewing or deep frying
This year I decided to grow okra for the first time. I only grew two plants not being certain how much space they would consume in the garden. The plants haven't grown very big so we haven't had large numbers of okra pods to harvest. I have learned, however, that okra pods need to be harvested fairly promptly after they develop. Otherwise, the pods become tough and pithy. Based on the websites I have reviewed this year, the rule of thumb is to pick early and often. In general, the pods can be picked once they are about 3 inches long. Next year I think I will grow 4 or 5 plants to be able to have extra pods to harvest and freeze for later use.

As I mentioned earlier, okra is common in southeastern US dishes. Our family enjoys down home New Orleans style cooking, which includes dishes with okra. My husband and I have discussed the possibility of a "foodie" vacation to New Orleans. Until that time, we will continue to prepare and enjoy our own New Orleans style food. Here is a recent recipe that we used that included some of the okra from our garden.

Stewed Okra and Tomatoes
Ingredients (for about 6 servings)
2 slices bacon (we prefer pepper bacon)
1 small chopped onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Chopped okra (fresh or frozen) - we only had about 6 pods and would have used more if we had them
1 quart canned tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

Steps
1. Chop up the bacon and fry in a medium-sized frying pan.
2. When the bacon is nearly done, add the chopped onion. Continue to sauté until the bacon is fully cooked and the onions are transparent.
3. Stir in the garlic and okra pieces. Cook together until okra begins to soften.
4. Stir in the tomatoes, juice and all. Simmer until mixture reaches desired consistency.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You may also want to consider a sprinkling of cayenne pepper or some "Slap Ya Mama" seasoning to give it a little extra spice.
One of our favorite seasonings
Depending on how much okra you used, this can serve as a stand-alone side dish. Because we had less okra and more tomato, we served ours over rice. It made a great companion side dish for our New Orleans-style po' boy sandwiches with andouille sausage. Yes, we do like to eat!