What is this food?
I know: Not everyone is a fan. Some just can't get past its slippery texture -- slimy, even. Okra, part of the mallow family (which includes hollyhock, rose of Sharon, and hibiscus), is a mucilaginous vegetable. Believe it or not, it's glutinous juice is prized as a thickener in some dishes. Gumbo, anyone?
Don't let the texture put you off. The flavor is so unique -- sort of a more herby version of an eggplant -- and when cooked correctly, okra actually has no stickiness or sliminess to it. It's true! "Correctly" simply means cooking the okra until there's no trace of stickiness left. This can sometimes mean cooking it for a long time. I find it can take as much as 40 minutes to saute frozen cut okra (the worst offender, to me) to rid it of its slipperiness.
But I've stumbled on a way to cook fresh okra that's not only faster, but truly slime free. Buy whole okra pods and steam them -- whole. Leave the caps on and do not cut them anywhere until the pods are bright green and tender, which should take only 2 to 3 minutes. Once they cool, you can slice and serve, or you give them a quick saute to add additional flavor. My favorite way to eat okra (well, second favorite; in gumbo is the first), is steamed this way and quickly sauteed with fresh corn cut from the cob, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and mushrooms. Summer food at its best.
Okra is not just popular in southern cooking. It pops up in Indian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, African, Mediterranean, and Brazilian cuisine. It's also quite nutritious: Okra is high in fiber, potassium, folate, and calcium, as well as vitamins A and C. Sometimes called Lady Fingers, okra is in season in late summer. (Now!) Look for small- to medium-sized pods. They'll be the most tender. Larger pods tend to be woody and stringy -- and, in fact, the mature pods are used to make fiber for rope and paper in some countries. A cool, but not particularly appetizing fact. Store okra inside a paper bag in your crisper and use within 2 days.
Inspired? Try okra in our Chicken Gumbo or Mixed Vegetable Curry, or fry some up in these Okra Fritters. Like pickles? Okra is excellent this way. Plus, pickled okra is just about perfect as a Bloody Mary garnish.
How do you like to eat your okra?