Okra: the Prologue

Have you ever had a friend visit one of your favorite places – say, San Francisco or New York City – and spend all of their time in the worst areas – say Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square – and leave with a terrible impression of that place – crowded, over-priced terrible food, kitschy and touristy? It’s frustrating. While you know that there is so much more to San Francisco than Madame Tussaud’s and t-shirt shops, it can be hard to overcome that negative first impression, however unjustified.

That sums up my feelings about okra. One of my favorite vegetables, it has a terrible reputation based largely on misunderstanding and poor preparation. Is okra slimy? Well, yes and no. Depending on how it is handled and prepared, it can either look like a creature from Alien or it can be as silky and soothing as good stock. Can it be prickly and stringy? Yes, if you get mature, past-their-prime pods. But all of these are easily avoidable disasters.

So, if you’ll let me be your tour guide, I’ll try to give you a better second impression of okra.

Let’s start with choosing the best okra:

I remember when I was little, my mom handed me a tiny tender okra pod to taste straight from the garden; it was still warm, easy to bite and chew, tender and velvety. It was a perfect little ripe okra pod, bright green and pliable, probably about the size of my thumb now. I prefer cooked okra, but they should be edible when raw, not tough and sharply ridged.

As with most fruits and vegetables, there is a tremendous difference between “ripe” and “mature” okra. Ripeness is the peak of flavor and tenderness before the plant begins putting all of its energy into producing and protecting viable seeds.  Think about the difference between an English pea pod and a flat snow pea. The English pea shell has matured into a case to protect the peas (or seeds) inside while the snow pea is still juicy and tender, immature but ripe. Since okra is not eaten mainly for its seeds, I want the outside to be tender like the snow pea rather than the English pea.

Okra is a sensitive little thing, easily bruised by over-handling, so a good indication of freshness is whether the tips and ridges are blackened by much squeezing and tossing. If you buy okra in a farmers market or grocery store that serves an enthusiastic okra-eating demographic like Indians, West Africans, or East Asians, you will probably see shoppers standing beside the bin rifling through the pile feeling each individual pod in order to get only the best. If an okra pod has been passed over often enough so that it gets bruised like that, walk away. The experts have spoken.

If you come across a pristine pile, go ahead and start feeling up the produce. Gently pick up each bright green pod that looks to be about the right size (think a ladies thumb) and give a little squeeze to see if it feels spiny and rigid or tender and pliable. There will be a light fuzz on the outside and they shouldn’t feel dry or brittle. The tips should be intact and not black and battered looking, and a little bit of stem on the other end keeps them from drying out too quickly. As long as they are not damp, they will store for a few days in a bag in your crisper drawer.

There are two exceptions to the size and color rules: First, there is an okra variety called “cow horn” that is much larger than other varieties while still being ripe rather than mature. If a seller can assure you that the large variety you are looking at is indeed the cow horn type, go ahead and try it, but if they are uncertain, don’t bother buying their okra. There is too much risk that you’ll end up with something that tastes like balsa wood. And then there are some gorgeous bronze and burgundy varieties of okra (like the ones in the first picture)that I like to try when I find them. They are less common though, so I would stick with green until you get comfortable and then branch out to more exotic types.

Now, before I get into any discussion on preparation, let’s talk about slime. Like I said, okra can be really slimy, depending on how it is cooked and handled. But why?  What is it that turns a velvety little pod into something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon? In a word, fiber. Okra contains a soluble fiber charmingly known as “mucilage.” Some other foods that contain mucilage are aloe vera, nopal (or prickly pear cactus), kelp (or kombu), chia seeds, flax seeds, and oatmeal. And just like aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin, this type of fiber is very soothing on the inside. During his recovery from orthognathic surgery a few years ago, Scott had a reaction to anti-swelling steroids he was given that caused a lot of stomach pain. One of the few foods that he could swallow that soothed his stomach were homemade miso soup (made with kelp) and stewed okra. This soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and keeping the digestive system healthy as a probiotic.

While I may not be able to convince anyone to love okra based purely on its health benefits,  these benefits are information worth knowing. I do however think that I’ll be able to convince you to give it a second change based on it’s deliciousness and versatility, beginning in my next post. See you soon in Okra: Part I

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