I have loved Okra from the first day in my youth when I was introduced to it. My family was on vacation at my Grandmother’s Summer Cottage on Lake Wauwanoka in Missouri. It was a small 10 acre lake surrounded by cottages. Filling the hearts and souls of children with more memories than Disney World could ever fill.
My Grandmother had a large, harvest style table with benches on either side and arm chairs on both ends. All conversations, games, etc. happened at this table. It literally was the heart of this tiny 600 sq. ft. cottage. Most of all, the food placed on this table every evening was enjoyed from the harvest of local farmers in the nearby town of Hillsboro.
My grandmother didn’t drive, so upon our arrival, my mother would take my grandmother to town and the two would shop. I, gifted with great curiosity, would always want to tag along.
Raised in a big city, it was quite an adventure to spend vacation in farming country. Driving to town we would pass silo after silo and fields of corn and rolling, lush, green pastures dotted with dairy cattle. Then, we’d arrive in small-town, USA.
All the farmers were lined up with produce on the backs of pickup trucks. It was an amazing sight for a 10 year old city girl who’s only exposure to fresh produce was Cooper & Martin Grocery Chain back in Nashville, Tennessee.
Okra was served several times during our stay in various ways from fried to pickled and mixed with tomatoes. Daddy and my siblings could not get past the slime that came with Okra. It never bothered me. I guess the fragrance and taste overcame the goo. Then, I was the peculiar one in the family. My love for okra and other vegetables derived from my childhood experience spending summer vacations watching Mama and Gram select fresh vegetables from farmers of Jefferson County, Missouri.
I remember the first time I grew Okra. I saw this beautiful flower and thought…I bought the wrong plant. It looked like Hibiscus. When I researched, I discovered in fact, Okra did come from the same Malvaceae family.
There was a little to learn growing okra. The soil must be warmed over several days for good growth. One could do this by laying plastic over the garden spot to increase temperature or just be patient.
I also learned that picking okra when small (a couple of inches long) is more flavorful. To allow them to grow longer, makes for bitter tasting and very tough, dried up okra.
Then, if you’re in a decorative mood, let the pods stay on the plant until they die and dry out and they can be used in autumn wreaths or table decor. Did this during my Martha Stewart phase.
Fried Okra makes a great side dish or…a great appetizer for tailgate parties. Eat it like popcorn. College Football is starting soon and Okra will still be producing prolifically.
When temperatures cool down, what better Southern Tradition is there than adding okra to a soupy mixture of either shrimp or shredded chicken, tomatoes, beans, celery and corn, some Cajun spices and whatever else you want to throw in the pot and then…, proudly call it Gumbo.
When I eat Gumbo, I think Creole. Since it is rumored that Okra originated in West Africa, my culinary thoughts automatically lean towards New Orleans.
Since Slaves also entered through South Carolina I’m certain Carolinian’s would regard a nice Seafood Gumbo that includes okra as a traditional Coastal Favorite.
Okra comes with nutritional value. It is high in fiber and contains Vitamin C and is an antioxidant. Okra doesn’t have to be pickled, fried or Gumbo’d. A more elegant approach to enjoying the fresh flavor is as a simple summer salad.
Okra Tomato Salad with a Basil and Balsamic Vinegar Dressing
To serve one salad:
Roughly chop 10 to 15 small (2 inch long) okra, removing the ends.
Roughly chop a tomato (any fresh off the vine tomato)
Steam the okra for about seven minutes.
Place in a bowl and add tomatoes.
Season with salt and pepper
Finely dice three small basil leaves and add to two tablespoons of Balsamic Vinegar.
Drizzle over okra and tomato salad.
That, friends, is the essence of okra.