Local Okra Flavor
Local okra is available now, and is definitely worth buying if you haven’t tried it before. Okra is not a common vegetable here, but it is delicious when cooked properly.
Okra has a sweet, grassy flavor. It has mucilage, which can be used to thicken stews. If you don’t like the texture, you can find different ways to cook it so the mucilage isn’t so slimy.
Some might compare local okra flavor to that of green beans or even asparagus, but the texture is different thanks to the mucilage.
Slow cooked, local okra is very tender, not slimy, and will thicken your dish. Cooked quickly, okra is more crunchy.
Okra is native to Ethiopia, and was brought here by enslaved people centuries ago. It is used in West African dishes as well used in the Southern United States.
Growing Local Okra
Okra likes it hot and humid, thus it is grown in the south. You can find it frozen, but right now is the best time to buy it fresh.
The okra plant is an attractive plant to grow, with hibiscus-like flowers, and grows well in the heat when other crops don’t. It grows well in poor soil, and the flowers are edible too.
You can grow okra as a landscape plant for the flowers, but mostly it is grown for the edible seed pods, the okra vegetable.
Okra is easy to grow, and a great choice for beginning gardeners.
When buying local okra, look for smaller bright green pods. The greener, the fresher it is. Larger pods can become woody. Most okra is hairy.
When growing okra, stay on top of the harvest. The more you pick, the more that will grow. And they will grow too big quickly. Okra goes from flower to fruit in a few days.
Types of Local Okra
Most local okra you will find will be green. There are many different varieties, some are smooth and others are fuzzy. Some are long, others are short. Some are pointed, others are rounded.
You can get okra plants that grow three feet tall or others that grow eight feet. You might find purple okra, or reddish okra.
Preserving Local Okra
After buying your local okra, it should keep up to four days in paper bags in your vegetable drawer in the fridge. As with most summer vegetables, use it sooner rather than later.
Okra freezes very well. Blanch them first, chop, and freeze on a baking tray before putting in containers for the freezer.
If fried okra is planned for later, you might want to batter the okra before freezing it.
Southern cooks also like to pickle okra, which can be water bath canned. Since acidity can cut the sliminess, pickled okra is usually not slimy. If not pickled, you can pressure can okra.
If you like to pressure can soups, adding okra to them is a great idea. You can’t add thickeners when canning soup, but okra can thicken soups safely when canning.
Dehydrated okra can be eaten later as a tasty snack.
Local Okra Recipes
My favorite ways to eat okra are fried or as gumbo. My mom called the okra seeds in gumbo “crab eyes” when I was a kid.
Okra can be slimy, and many don’t like the texture. To cut the sliminess, buy small okra, cook them whole, and keep them dry.
As okra hits boiling temperatures, the viscosity of the gel thins, becoming less slimy. The mucilage becomes a thickener for the soup or stew the okra is in.
There are those who recommend using acid to cut the sliminess. The acidity of tomatoes can help, hence the reason tomatoes and okra are often paired (plus they are in season together).
Pickled okra is also acidic, and won’t be as slimy. You might also try soaking okra in vinegar before using it, or in salt to pull moisture out.
Both frying and soups that use okra can also substitute eggplant, summer squash, and green beans, so you might want to try using okra in dishes that use those ingredients as well.
Since okra will thicken things, if you sub okra out, add thickener. If you sub okra in, pay attention to how thick the recipe should be.
Since okra’s flavor is mild, it is best used in dishes with more complex flavors. Okra is great with bacon, garlic, pickled vegetables, hot peppers, and lemon.
In my house, seafood gumbo means seafood only, not added chicken or andouille sausage. This Seafood Gumbo is very similar to one my mother made me growing up. The file, roux, and okra all thicken the gumbo.
Here is a Cajun Gumbo recipe from Serious Eats, this one has chicken and sausage.
Did you Know?
Okra came to the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade. Some African women braided okra seeds into their hair to bring with them on slave ships.
One source claims the word gumbo comes from a corruption of a Portuguese corruption, quingombo, of the word quillobo. The word quillobo is the native name for okra in the Congo and Angola areas of Africa.
Another source says that the slaves from Angola brought okra here, but called it ngombo, which became the word gumbo.
Ultimately, okra is a popular vegetable in West Africa. The leaves, buds, and flowers are all eaten there. Dried seeds provide oil, protein, and a coffee substitute.
While okra has a complicated history, it has become an important part of our Southern cuisine. If you haven’t tried okra, now is the time to try it.
Find local okra at your local farmstand, or at your farmers market!