Archive | July 26th, 2009

In Season: Facing the Fear of Okra

In Season: Facing the Fear of Okra

okraMy late mother-in-law was a formidable cook and thrifty to boot. But years ago, she was nearly defeated by a small, conical pod from her husband’s garden: okra.

Her husband, Si, planted a 20-foot row of okra plants that summer. When they began to produce pods, the bounty was exciting. Marjorie made and served and froze lots of her excellent shrimp gumbo, brimming with delicious okra. She made okra pickles and fried okra and sautéed okra.

The plants were still madly producing a couple of months later when her husband plowed them under. The lesson they learned:  A 20-foot row of plants will yield far too much okra for a family of five and all of their neighbors in a three-block radius.

This year I decided to plant okra. Heeding the family lesson I planted just two okra seeds. Never having seen an okra plant in production I waited for the proliferation of okra to begin. Surprises were ahead.

First, the sheer vigor of the plant astonished me. I had put one seedling into a large pot holding a Meyer lemon and another in a pot with my allspice tree. All of the plants appear to be living well together at this time, but the okra with the lemon is about three feet tall, still growing and regularly producing pods. Its stalk looks to be about an inch thick. The other plant got off to a slow start but is almost to the production stage.

Second, I was pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the okra flower. It opens to about the size and shape of an espresso cup. The petals are creamy ivory leaning to yellow. The throat of the blossom is a deep magenta-purple.

The third surprise was how swiftly the pods grow. A friend suggested I camp out on a lawn chair overnight to keep an eye on them, flashlight and clippers in hand. I may exaggerate, but I believe I have seen them go from the size of a thimble to the size of a small zucchini overnight. (Imagine the terror of my father-in-law,  facing a 20-foot row of the things.)

I like fresh okra. I love to slice and sauté them in a little olive oil and add them to tomatoes and onions for a side dish. Indians make a good dry sauté of thick-cut okra pods that never seems slimy.

Ah yes, that mucilage. I’d learned that part of the thickening of a good gumbo came from the slimy production of the cut okra. That, and the roux, of course. If they are cooked with an acidic food, such as tomatoes or lemon juice, the mucilage seems to retreat. The following spicy Indian recipe for Bhindi Curry is a good example.  Also, sliced, fried okra is largely mucilage free, as are pickled okra pods.

Okra is very good in an omelet, too. I picked two pods off the plant one morning and sliced them up along with a small crook-neck squash growing in another part of the yard and a few grape tomatoes. I sautéed them briefly and folded them into the omelet. The recipe below, for Bhindi Curry, is another spicy and delicious way to use okra.

Okra is available (and very popular) now in San Antonio farmers markets. That is a good thing.  This summer taught me that two okra plants are not enough for two okra-loving people. Next year, I’ll plant three.

Bhindi (Okra) Curry

1 pound okra
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
½ teaspoon fenugreek seed, slightly crushed
3 tablespoons mustard oil (vegetable oil can be used)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 (1-inch) pieces fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon heenj (asafoetida) (see note)
3/4 cup diced tomatoes
1 green pepper, chopped
2 small green chiles (such as serrano) or dry red chiles, chopped, or to taste

Wash the okra, trim tops and tails, cut into approximately pieces about ½-inch thick. Fry mustard seed, coriander seed and fenugreek seed in mustard oil (or vegetable oil) for 2-3 minutes. Cover the pan or the mustard seeds will leap out all over the kitchen. Add garlic, onion and ginger; fry gently for about 10 minutes more. Put the ground cumin, paprika and heenj into a small bowl and make a paste with a little water. Add paste to the pan with other ingredients and fry for a further 10 minutes. Add cut okra, tomatoes, green pepper and chiles to the pan. Stir. Cover and simmer very slowly until the okra is tender but not sloppy (about 15-20 minutes).

Heenj, or asafoetida, is available at any of the city’s Indian markets.

Serves 3-4 as a main course, 5-6 as a side vegetable.

From: Tony Walton/astray

Posted in In Season, Recipes10 Comments