Okra good, but tricky vegetable

Aug. 03, 2013 @ 10:34 AM

People often ask me what is in season at the farmers' market.  Around this time of year, because of its abundance, okra is always near the top of my list. 

Recently, after I mentioned okra, a couple of people have qualified their question with, "I meant good vegetables." Well, I'm here to say, Okra is a good vegetable!  I will, however, qualify that statement by saying that it can be a tricky vegetable.

Okra is a flowering plant in the mallow family and is related to cotton, cocoa and hibiscus.  The okra that we see at the farmers' market is the edible seed pod that forms after a large, white flower blooms on the plant. 

The okra plant will bear fruit all summer long.  Farmers plant it after the last frost around late April. It takes a couple of months to be mature enough to grow okra pods, but once it starts it will bear until the frost kills the plant, which is often in late October. By the fall, okra plants can be more than 10 feet tall!

Okra likely originated in Africa in the area that is now Ethiopia and Eritrea. There isn’t a good historical record of it, but the wild form of the plant is found growing along the banks of the Nile. From there, okra spread around Europe and Asia, likely with Spanish explorers, before eventually finding its way to the Americas.

As I'm sure you know, okra is mucilaginous -- or slimy.  That is a big reason why people don't like it.  Over the years, I've learned there are ways to use okra so that the finished product isn't slimy and that there are ways to harness its gooeyness as a thickener in what I'm cooking. For example, when I’m making fresh tomato sauce, I add a couple pods of chopped okra, which will help it to thicken.

Okra fried in cornmeal is also delicious, but can be labor intensive. Gumbo is another way to enjoy fresh okra and in gumbo recipes, okra acts as a thickener. But, by far, my favorite way to enjoy okra is by roasting it. Roasted okra is very, very easy to make and it doesn’t end up gooey at all! Here’s how to do it…

Roasted Okra

½ pound tender 2-3 inch long okra pods 

1-2 tablespoons Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and dry the okra. Trim off the stem. Slice the pods lengthwise and coat them in olive oil. Spread out on a cookie sheet in single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the okra in the oven and let it roast for about 15 minutes, stirring it every 5 minutes. Enjoy while it is still hot.

Erin Kauffman is market manager of the Durham Farmers’ Market.