by Norm Budnitz
I’ll say it flat out, “I like okra!”
Some people say it’s too slimy. Others simply say, “Yuck!” The methods of cooking okra for long periods of time that result in a mucilaginous goo leave me wanting something different. I don’t mind stewed okra and tomatoes, just like I’m willing to tolerate eating other veggies that are cooked for a long time, if there’s nothing else available. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are quick and easy ways to cook okra that are simply delicious. As it is, I spend enough time with my okra in the field; I want short and sweet and eat in the kitchen. Read on, recipe at the end.
Okra is a tropical plant in the mallow family, related to cotton, cacao, and hibiscus. I’ve seen it growing profusely in roadside ditches in Madagascar. It thrives in our North Carolina clay soils and hot, hot, hot summers, so long as it has sufficient water. By summer’s end, some plants will be 10-12 feet tall with stems as big around as your wrist! Frost, of course, does them in. They are tropical, after all.
Okra flowers are beautiful. They are 3-4 inches across, bright yellow, with deep red or purple centers. The plants typically bloom in the morning, the flowers fading as the day wears on. One flower lasts one day and results in one okra pod. My job is to pick them before the pods get too big. Perhaps one of the reasons for the tradition of cooking okra so long is because when the pods get big, they get tough and fibrous. I don’t like that. So I try to pick our okra no longer than 3-4 inches. The problem is that the plants seem to know that. They seem to wait till I’m not looking and suddenly produce pods that go from about an inch to as long as an ear of corn in almost no time at all. I argue with the plants, but they don’t seem to listen. They just grow taller and make bigger pods as soon as I turn my back.
Though they make those pretty flowers and growing stunningly quickly, the plants have a dark side. It seems that they don’t like people. I learned this the hard way. I had one of those one-trial-learning experiences. On a hot, sunny day, I decided to pick okra bare-handed in a short-sleeved shirt. May I humbly recommend that you DO NOT do this. The pods are often deep inside the plant near the stem, so I dove in with my bare hands, bare arms, and bare face. Okra leaves are covered with tiny hairs (I guess you could call them bristles) that cause many humans to itch, particularly me. The stinging and itching were unbelievable—on my arms, hands, cheeks, forehead, and even my neck. Now, even if it’s 90° and 90% humidity, I wear my long-sleeved ‘picking shirt,’ rubber gloves, and a hat. And I do not stick my head into the okra patch.
In spite of okra’s defensive tactics, I love these plants. When they are young, I have to bend over to harvest them. Oh, my aching back. When they are old and 10 feet tall, I have to reach up and pull the tops down in order the clip the pods. Oh, my aching shoulders. But still, I love them. And here’s why:
Roasted or Grilled Okra