f there were a contest for which vegetable is "most likely to bury you", okra would win. The first time I grew it, I planted two long rows, thinking I'd get maybe enough for three or four stews. "Darlin'," one old-timer warned me, "that's enough okra for a city." I stopped growing it years ago, mainly because my neighbors show up at my door at the end of every summer with sacks of okra, pleading to get rid of it. Since okra keeps only a few days in the refrigerator, I immediately blanch young okra pods (under 3 inches long) in boiling water for a few minutes -- one pound at a time -- and then dump them into ice water for 5 minutes. After draining well, I put the okra pods in Ziplock bags and freeze them for use in stews and soups later.
Okra is a very odd plant with a strange history, most of it undocumented. It's a member of the hibiscus family, related to the hollyhock, the rose of Sharon, and cotton. Experts think it originated over 1000 years ago in the part of Africa that is now Ethiopia and Sudan, where it's still found growing wild. It spread to Arabia, the Mediterranean, and India, nobody knows exactly how. A Spanish traveler found it on his travels through Egypt in 1216 -- young pods were eaten with meal. Meal-coated fried okra....sound familiar? The word "okra" may have come from a corruption of the West African name for the plant : nkruma. In Swahili, it's called "gumbo", and the people of the Mediterranean call it "Bamyia".
Since okra is a native African food, it's believed by many to have come to America with the African slaves. However, it's also possible that French colonists brought it to Lousiana in the early 1700's, or it came into the port of New Orleans from Brazil where it was established as a crop in the mid-1600's. Okra was grown as far north as Philadelphia by the mid-1700's, and was popular throughout the South in the 1800's.
Growing it in the South is easy. Okra loves humidity and heat. It's generally planted on ridges in heavy clay soils for good drainage, and with lots of organic matter to ward off nematodes, tiny critters that can attack the roots. The only rule for okra is to plant it when the soil is really warm -- say, May. It has to be harvested every other day, to get the edible size pods, four inches and under. All okra have some spines that irritate the skin, so it's best to wear long sleeves when harvesting. The recommended varieties include the common ones -- Clemson Spineless, Emerald, and Annie Oakley II -- and a red one called Burgundy. A new dwarf variety was introduced for large containers and smaller vegetable gardens, hilariously named "Baby Bubba."
The Mediterranean and African people generally stew okra with a medley of other vegetables, and Southerners fry it, like the French. Most people don't know that okra can be dried for later use. In some countries, the okra seeds are pressed and the okra oil is used as a cooking oil. Ripe okra seeds can also be roasted and ground, as a substitute for coffee.
Some people grow okra as an ornamental plant rather than a food crop, for its pretty flower. However, it must be the ornamental from Hell, since most varieties grow over six feet tall with spiny seed pods that have to be pinched off every other day in the blazing heat, to keep the plant flowering and producing.
Most of okra's unpopularity has to do with how fast it turns to slime when you cook it. Louisianians made okra slime a virtue, by using it as a thickener for their sensational "gumbo" soups.
But my mother, a Greek, told me the secret to cooking great, non-slimy okra : Don't stir it during cooking, and serve it carefully without breaking the pods. Rough handling brings out the slime. The Greeks also use another anti-slime method : they cut the conical top of each okra pod with a sharp knife, soak it in red wine vinegar or lemon juice for 30 minutes, drain, rinse, and dry it. Then they use it in stews with onions, peppers, lamb chunks, flavored with cumin, coriander, mint, lemon juice, and garlic. No slime and great flavor.
To get okra into children is a challenging matter. Despite their Greek roots, my kids always preferred the southern version --- sliced, rolled in cornmeal, and deep fried. My girlfriend, Ginny, found an even better way to get okra into her six kids. She half cooks about a half-pound of bacon, and then drains it. Then she slices up 3 fresh tomatoes, and when they're bubbling hot, tosses in a pound of okra, all sliced in 1 inch pieces. She gives the mixture one quick stir, counts to 30, and serves. "They eat it like candy," she claims.
Besides fried, pickled and stewed, okra is used in a variety of soups and pilafs, throughout the world, usually joined by other vegetables -- tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant, even corn. It's not until I searched the internet that I found the really weird uses. There was a recipe for okra muffins -- basically cornbread muffins with tiny slices of okra and onion, along with liberal dashes of hot sauce. The humdinger, though, was the recipe for "Creole Pizza", featuring a topping of tomato, pepper, onion, shrimp, cheese, lots of hot spices --- and sliced okra taking the place of pepperoni. It was attributed to "General Mills, date unknown" -- undoubtedly the creation of a bored staff home economist, looking for something exotic to do with Bisquick-based pizza crust. I haven't found a recipe for okra dessert yet -- but it's just a matter of time before some "fusion" chef in California comes up with one.
Mom's BAMYIES YAHNI (Stewed Okra in Tomatoes)
Serves 6 as a sidedish
Wash okra, sprinkle with 1/2 the lemon juice and let stand 30 minutes.
1 pound okra
1 large onion, chopped
3 medium fresh tomatoes, cut up or 1 (8 oz.) can stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
juice of 1 lemon
salt, pepper and parsley to taste
Saute onion in olive oil 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the remaining lemon juice, water, and seasonings, and simmer about 10 minutes.
Drain okra. Put okra in tomato sauce, little by little, gently covering okra with sauce. Simmer for about 20-25 minutes, until tender. DO NOT STIR during the cooking.
Serve warm or at room temperature. We often had this at room temperature because my mom made this hours before dinner, and reheating it can cause scorching and bitterness.