Perusing the farmer’s market last weekend, I happened upon a vegetable I had never cooked before, and rarely eaten— okra. Being a cook who loves exploring new foods, I couldn’t resist buying a large handful of this unusual vegetable.
Here in Colorado, we don’t eat okra very often, and honestly, I don’t recall ever seeing it in the grocery store. In fact, until I discovered these sweet little seedpods at the market, I was under the impression that okra only grew in the South. And while it is true that okra is better understood and appreciated in the South (most commonly served fried or in classic recipes like gumbo), it is a delightfully delicious vegetable and relatively easy to grow in dry climates. With beautiful flowers adorning the garden (Botanical Interests garden guru, Ryan Schmitt, tells me the flowers are hibiscus), the okra plant yields a generous crop. The edible seedpods can grow as long as 9”, however, unless you’re trying to win a state fair contest for longest okra, it’s best to harvest the pods when they are about 3 to 4 inches in length. The best way to check okra for ripeness is to hold the pod in your hand and bend the bottom tip with your thumb. If the tip snaps easily, you’ve got okra that will have a great flavor and texture. If the tip bends a bit without breaking, then it is likely over-mature and will have a very coarse texture.
Perhaps the reason okra isn’t sold in most stores is because it doesn’t keep long once harvested— which, like so many other vegetables, is yet another reason to have a garden. Plant foods eaten shortly after harvesting are infinitely better tasting and more nutritious than the vegetables shipped from across the country to your local grocery. Okra is no exception. As I discovered this week, fresh okra has its own charm— delicate and uniquely flavorful. Okra can be pickled, fried, sautéed, baked, and even frozen for enjoyment during the winter months.
Being a bit of a purist and not having ever eaten much okra, I wanted to learn more about its essence— what does it taste like, in its unadulterated form? I discovered that simply sautéing okra with a few other fresh ingredients from the garden is a magnificent celebration of this southern staple.
What about the slime? Most folks who aren’t fond of cooking okra will tell you stories about the unpleasantness of the “dreaded” okra slime. Admittedly I don’t have much experience cooking okra, so I had to resort to some internet research and discovered that indeed, cooking the pods can result in the releasing of a certain gooey substance, or slime, if you want to use a more technical term. And thanks to many okra cooks who have come before me, I quickly found dozens of tips for minimizing the sliminess— most involved cooking the pods quickly on high heat, as in a stir fry, or cooking with a small amount of an acidic ingredient, such as citrus, tomatoes, or vinegar. And apparently, when the pods are thinly sliced and cooked slowly over time (for example, in gumbo), the offending slime dissolves.
I decided not to take my chances with okra slime and added a small amount of tomatoes to my dish. This was a good decision, in hindsight, as I detected no evidence of the dreaded okra goo, and the tomatoes tasted terrific in combination with the okra and garlic.
I’m happy to report that this simple sauté was delicious, earthy, and satisfying. So much so, that I am already planning a spot in my garden for next year’s okra! I served mine with a good heaping of cooked quinoa, but rice or mashed potatoes would be equally complementary. As with all the other delights from your garden or the farmers market, I encourage you to be a little adventurous. What have you got to lose?
Okra sautéed with garlic, tomato, and onion.
- 3 to 4 cups fresh okra, sliced
- 1 large ripe tomatoes, chopped (or ½ cup canned diced tomatoes)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Sea salt, to taste
- Heat oil in heavy-bottomed, large skillet over medium heat
- Add chopped onion and garlic, and sauté until onion is translucent and soft
- Add okra and tomatoes and sauté until okra is al dente (tender yet firm)
- Season to taste with salt
- Serve over rice, quinoa, or just enjoy it all by itself!