Growth in gardening: the controversial and delicious okra

Okra, I know, I know. Stop. You either love okra or you absolutely hate it, and you’ve already decided to read on or to go away. Stay. Please, please stay. I’ve got this, really, I do. Okra is the new asparagus. Seriously. I’m certain of it. I’m an official okra missionary. I am here to convert– and I can even help you get past the slime.

This is what I know for certain: okra is a controversial vegetable. Many gardeners north of the Mason-Dixon Line have never heard of it let alone tried growing it. But okra is as much a part of Southern cuisine as collard greens and fried chicken. But in the Southern kitchen, it is far more controversial. Folks love okra or they hate it. No one, and I mean no one, is in the middle.

I also know this: okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of all shapes and forms. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, broiled, pickled, whole, sliced and julienned. Personally, I love it raw right off the vine or sliced in a salad. You name it, okra lovers love okra. Those who hate it think it’s slimy, gooey, and gummy. Some even go as far to call it “mucilaginous ick.” (That last bit really made my spellchecker go nuts)

In my opinion, okra haters simply haven’t met the right okra yet. According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, African slaves brought okra across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trading era. Little is known about the early history and distribution of okra, but it is thought to have originated in equatorial Africa. It eventually made its way into Northern Africa, the Mediterranean and India before its journey across the Atlantic to the New World.

Okra is a main component in gumbo. There are two main considerations for the etymology of the word “gumbo.” The first suggest that in Bantu, the language family of Southern Africa, which includes Swahili, okra is called ngumbo, and this is where gumbo originates. The second is that “gumbo” is believed to be a corruption of the Portuguese corruption, quingombo, or the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola.

Okra is not, however, solely found in the American South or in Africa. The ancient routes by which okra was taken from central Africa to Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean and to India is not certain, but we do know that okra is found in abundance in three major areas today—East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. It is also found in pockets in the Caribbean, as well as in South America.

One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow. There are actually 50 species of wild and cultivated okra around the world. According to the USDA, okra grows best in zones 4a through 11 in the United States. One acre of okra usually produces 200 to 250 bushels of okra, or approximately 600 to 750 pounds. That is a lot of gumbo. Depending on the variety, the plant will tower up to 12 feet in the Southern garden. Clemson Spineless is the favorite hybrid of Southern gardeners, but many heirloom varieties are reemerging from the garden shed, including Star of David, a stumpy star-shaped pod; Hill Country Red, a vivid velvety red okra from right here in central Texas; and Perkins Mammoth Long Pod, an okra varietal that produces pods up to 16 inches in length– and still tastes good.

On that note, most okra doesn’t taste good when it’s that long; it becomes tough and woody. In general, look for young, small pods no longer than four inches in length, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger. At the market, buy okra that is firm, unblemished and brightly colored. Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green, almost white, especially at local farmer’s markets. Make sure to avoid limp, bruised, blemished and moldy pods.

To get you started, here are my top 5 tips to get you past the slime.

Top Five Slime Busting Tips: 

  • Choose small pods.
  • Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.
  • Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.
  • Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar, or wine when cooking.
  • Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Now I offer a rather unorthodox grilled gumbo that keeps both the slime, and time, factors to a minimum.

Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo” 

A pan of the Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo” from Urbach’s kitchen. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Leave the soup pot in the cupboard. Succulent shrimp and spicy Andouille sausage team up with sweet onion, tomatoes and okra for a delicious dish that tastes like gumbo but doesn’t take hours to cook. This dish is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

  • 1 pound large Texas Gulf shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
  • 12 ounces fully cooked Andouille sausage, halved lengthwise
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes from the garden
  • 12 ounces finger-size okra, stems trimmed
  • 1 onion, preferably a Texas 1015, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
  • 1 poblano or green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into quarters
  • ¼ cup pure olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons Creole or Cajun seasoning, plus more to taste
  • ¼ cup ketchup, warmed
  • 4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, chopped
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Hot cooked rice, for serving
  1. Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Combine the shrimp, sausage, tomatoes, okra, onion, and bell peppers in a large bowl. Add the oil and Creole seasoning, and toss to coat the ingredients. Thread the shrimp, tomatoes, okra, and pepper onto separate skewers. (The onions can go directly on the grill.) Or, use a grilling basket instead of skewers for the vegetables. 
  3. Place the vegetables on the hottest part of the grill. Arrange the sausage over slightly cooler heat and the shrimp at the edges of the grill. Cook, turning once or twice, until the shrimp is opaque, the sausage is heated through, and the vegetables are tender and slightly charred, 8 to 10 minutes (the shrimp will take less time to cook). Slice the sausage, onion, and bell peppers into bite-size pieces, then transfer them, along with the other ingredients, to a large bowl.
  4. Toss the meat and vegetable mixture with the warmed ketchup and green onions. Cover the mixture tightly with plastic wrap and let the vegetables steam and wilt slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and Creole seasoning to your liking. Ladle over cooked rice in warmed serving bowls. Serve immediately. 

 

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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