Okra, or more formally Abelmoschus esculentus Moench, is a popular ingredient in Southern cuisine.
Its origin is disputed, with West Africa, Ethiopia and South Asia all contenders. The plant thrives in tropical and subtropical regions around the world and is highly tolerant to heat and drought.
The pod is first mentioned as a food staple in an account from 1216 by a Spanish Moor visiting Egypt. From there, okra spread through the Mediterranean and eventually came to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1650s. In the South, it comes to the table in all forms: fried, roasted, boiled (as a thickener for soups and gumbo), dried, steamed, pickled and even thinly sliced and eaten raw.
In the 1960s, horticulturalists developed the Clemson spineless variety, which has become the most popular variety of okra in the world. Clemson spineless can even be found in West Africa.
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Fresh cut okra pods can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. Smaller pods can be pickled or thinly sliced and tossed into salads.
If you want to tame the slime, you can minimize the okra “goo” by not cutting the okra. Use smaller pods whole in stir-fried dishes or roasted. Adding a few drops of an acid, such as lemon juice, tomatoes or vinegar, can balance the slime.
Or you can embrace the slime: Okra has long been used as a thickener in soups and gumbo. Slice bigger pods and use them in tomato-based vegetable soup, along with corn, peas and beans.
You can even use the leaves: Wash and toss okra leaves in salads or saute them as you would dandelion or beet greens.
If you really want to celebrate okra, mark your calendar for the famous Irmo Okra Strut Sept. 25-26 at Irmo Community Park, 7505 East View Dr., in Irmo, S.C., about 12 miles from Columbia. Get more details on that at irmookrastrut.com.
Smashed Fried Okra
1 pound fresh okra
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Use a meat mallet to smash the okra, starting at tip of pod and working toward stem. Place buttermilk in a shallow dish and yellow cornmeal in a second shallow dish. Season cornmeal with salt and pepper. Dip okra in buttermilk; dredge in seasoned cornmeal, shaking off excess.
In a large Dutch oven, pour oil to a depth of 2 inches. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Fry okra in batches, 2 to 3 minutes or until brown and crisp, turning once. Remove okra from oil and drain on paper towels. Salt and pepper to taste and serve hot.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Stir Fried Okra
2 tablespoons coconut oil
10 ounces okra, cut in half lengthwise
1 (1-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 or 2 red chile peppers, thinly sliced
1 lime, juiced
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1 small handful of cilantro, roughly chopped
Salt to taste
Work in batches: Melt 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in a large frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add half the okra and saute. Add half of the ginger, shallots, garlic and chile and saute until okra has browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and repeat with remaining ingredients.
Plate the okra, drizzle with lime juice and sprinkle on the toasted sesame seeds and cilantro. Add salt to taste.
Yield: 2 servings.