Recently returning back to the New Orleans area where I grew up has been a somber experience, to say the least. Everything here is referred to as Pre-K (pre-Katrina) or after Katrina. Through it all, the residents who are still around need some type of normalcy and they have just that in their cuisine.
My father tries to keep busy any way he can while awaiting his new home construction. One of his new hobbies is a vegetable and herb garden at his current residence. I inquired about the tall plant with heart-shaped leaves and beautiful flowers that resembled a hibiscus. I was surprised to learn it was an okra plant.
Brought over from Africa, okra is a southern staple year round but especially in the summertime. As a member of the mallow family, this annual tropical herb is related to cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock, which explains those gorgeous familiar looking flowers. The edible seed pods are cooked as a vegetable and primarily used to thicken soups and stews. They are best when young and tender and should be firm and green, although there is a red variety available. Avoid okra that is discolored, dry or limp.
As a good source of vitamins C and A, fat-free okra is a healthy choice. Low in calories and high in fiber make it a wise vegetable choice. Armed with the knowledge of the benefits of this vegetable may counteract some rumors you might have heard of its special feature. When the pods are cut, they become sticky and slimy - not a very appetizing side effect, you might think, and I would have to agree. There are some ways to prevent this, so don't give up on okra just yet.
Wash okra while whole and dry. Freeze the whole pods until solid. Slice while still frozen and use immediately. Use quick cooking methods like frying to decrease the amount of water loss, which increases the stickiness. Use non-aluminum pots, as they will discolor the vegetable. When cooked down for long periods, the okra will thicken soups and stews. Its flavors blend well with acidic foods like tomatoes.
Give a new vegetable a try. I'm not sure how readily available okra is in our region, but it would make a beautiful addition to any sunny spot in your garden.