Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Okay for Okra!


I’ve been seeing some strange recipes lately that suggest the way to cook okra is to (ugh!) boil it. Well, maybe that’s how some people like it. I can’t understand why, but to each his own, right?


Let’s talk about okra for a minute. The Swahili word for okra is “gumbo.” I kid you not. So when we say, “Chicken gumbo,” we’re really saying, “Chicken-and-okra.” Shrimp gumbo is the same, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how okra—or gumbo—got here; perhaps some enterprising ship’s captain--or some homesick African, boarding a boat for a trip he never wanted to take--must have hidden a few of the BB-shaped cream-colored seeds in braided hair, in a fold of clothing or a pocket, and nurtured them here.

Sad as the story must have been, I’m so glad they brought those seeds, for generations of Americans of all colors have enjoyed okra for centuries.

Okra likes hot, dry weather (of course, it needs some water) and practically takes care of itself. .Plant them at the back of the garden bed (they grow between 2 ½’ -4’ tall, after all danger of frost is past, and then stand back. They are very enthusiastic growers.

It’s an interesting-looking plant, with pretty yellow flowers, so you can grow it pretty much anywhere but in the living room. Well, practically

Pick the pods when they are three or four inches long. They are most tender then, and will cook quickly. Longer pods, or old pods, will be stringy, tough and unappetizing. Also, you can’t really chew or eat them when they’re dry and stringy, so stick to the small ones for the “best eatin’.”

There are lots of good New Orleans and Louisiana recipes that deal with okra, so many we’d have trouble listing them all here. Here’s a good one that’s quick, easy, great with barbecue, and appeals most particularly well to the menfolk:


About 1-1 ½ # fresh small okra OR
1 (12 oz) pkg. frozen okra
I large onion
I (16 oz) can diced tomatoes
1-2 garlic cloves
½ tsp oregano
¼ tsp thyme
Olive oil
¼ tsp red pepper flakes* OR
1 small pinch of cayenne powder
¼ tsp black pepper, ground*
½ tsp salt*

*Use as much or as little as you wish; just remember, you can’t make this dish without some pepper(s) and salt; and that you can always add more, but once it’s in, you can’t take any out. Walk softly when sprinkling stuff.


Peel and finely dice the onion. Reserve. Crush, peel and finely dice garlic. Reserve that, too. Open the tomatoes. If you are using fresh okra, rinse, top, and tip them (cut off the tops and tips), cut into ¾” slices and reserve in a separate bowl.

In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, and oregano, thyme and black and red peppers. Sweat them, then add the okra and stir for five Hail Marys if you are Catholic, and about 3 ½ minutes if you are anything else. What you are looking for is a tender but crisp okra slice. You may have to say another Hail Mary. Whatever.

Add the can of diced tomatoes, juice and all. Keep stirring all the time. This is very important. You must not let the okra scorch. Not even a little bit. If it does, toss it in the compost and start over. When all or almost all of the juice is gone, the okra is crisp-tender, and the okra mix is getting dryer-but-not dry, add the salt and black pepper, and take it off the heat. It’s done.

Serve with whole lot of fried shrimp or catfish+, boiled, mashed or fried potatoes, and a great green salad, and enjoy. Or with anything else you like to eat.

+Recipe to be found in “The Big Family Cookbook”, also by this author, at www.youpublish.com/TheBigFamilyCookbook/.

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