Make Friends with Okra

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Okra pods can be roasted, grilled, pickled or stirred into soup

Do you like okra?

Until I was an adult, my answer was ‘I like it fried’, which I still think is a fit use for tender pods of okra. But these days I love okra roasted, grilled, pickled or stirred into soup, and I’m willing to take special measures to coax a crop from my mountain garden. Summers that include long spells of hot, humid weather bring out the best in okra, a hibiscus cousin classified as Abelmoschus esculentus, esculentus translating as ‘full of food’.

Okra probably originated in East Africa, though relatives have been traced to Asia. There are dozens of types of okra, including some that grow into vines, but in temperate climate gardens it is best to stick with varieties that have been bred to produce high-quality pods in 10 weeks or less.

“‘Candle
‘Candle Fire’ okra. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections

For example, ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘Cajun Delight’ grow into compact, chest-high bushes that adapt well to changeable weather. Beautiful, red-blushed ‘Candle Fire’ was an All-America Selections winner in 2017, and a single plant can be stunning in a large container. Even better for small gardens or containers are dwarf varieties like ‘Green Fingers’ that grow to only two feet (60cm) tall. Should you have heat and space to spare, try resilient ‘Clemson Spineless’, an open-pollinated variety dating back to 1939 that’s a consistent winner in taste tests.

Helping Okra Seeds Sprout

Without special help, okra seeds often take two weeks or more to germinate because their hard seed coats keep them from absorbing water. To speed things up, use a nail clipper to make a nick in each seed on the opposite side from the little eye; you will hear the seed coat crack when you get a good cut. Then soak the seeds in room temperature water for 24 hours. When promptly planted in warm, moist soil, okra seeds handled this way are up and growing within a week.

“Nicking
Nicking and soaking hard okra seeds helps them germinate much faster.

Okra is typically direct-seeded, but you also can start seeds indoors in small containers. Then grow the seedlings to transplant size on a sunny deck or patio. I often do this so I will have sturdy okra plants to set out as replacements for bygone lettuce and other spring crops.

“Okra
Okra seedlings are armed with tiny hairs to deter small insects.

Prepare soil for okra as you would for tomatoes, by amending a sunny site with composted manure along with a balanced organic fertilizer. Okra demands full sun and a constant supply of nutrients, so plan to fertilize when blooming starts, and again when rejuvenating the plants in late summer. Okra plants that have grown tall and tired will produce new bearing side branches if topped back to chest height and given a deep drink of a water-soluble organic plant food.

Harvesting Okra Pods and Flowers

Okra starts producing pods in midsummer, about 60 days after planting, and continues to bloom and produce for many weeks if the old pods are removed. For a change of pace, you can eat a few okra flowers as exotic edible garnishes, though picking the flowers means they won’t set pods. If you let the plants shed blossoms naturally, four to five days later you should have perfect pods about 4 inches (10cm) long. Pods grow faster in warmer weather, and hot-weather pods are more tender due to their fast growth.

“Some
Some okra varieties feature vibrant red color.

Use pruning shears to clip pods from the stem, and handle them gently to prevent bruising. When okra plants reach their productive prime, you will need to harvest every other day. Place harvested okra in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator, but wait until you are ready to cook to wash the pods in cool water.

Should you grow a bumper crop, okra stays deliciously crisp in a pickling brine, or you can freeze sliced pieces on a cookie sheet and then store the frozen pieces in an airtight container.

“Freeze
Freeze cut okra on cookie sheets before storing them in airtight containers.

How to Avoid the Slime

But what about the slime? Some of us embrace okra’s viscosity in gumbos and Middle Eastern vegetable stews, but for others, okra’s gooey mucilage is a deal breaker. It doesn’t have to be this way. In many Indian dishes, okra pieces are briefly pan fried and set aside, then added back to the dish when it is almost complete. Frying turns the okra rounds into chewy medallions with crisp edges, with minimal slime.

The most popular solution to the slime problem is to use a dry cooking method, such as roasting split pods that have been tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a hot oven, or grilling whole, oiled pods until they begin to blacken. Roasted okra is hard to resist when served on a platter with garden tomatoes, herbs and a zesty dressing.

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