Article courtesy of Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor
A major vegetable in the south, okra, like corn, is synonymous with summer. It is often grown year-round in southern climates that do not have frost, as it stops producing once temperatures go below 50 degrees. Okra is cultivated in tropical and warm climates. It is among the most heat and drought tolerant vegetable species in the world, tolerating poor soils and intermittent moisture. Home gardeners in the South, and especially Florida, have a lot of okra and eggplant coming in right now, so get creative! We would love to hear how you are using your okra.
Its scientific name is “Abelmoschus asculentus” and “Hibiscus esculentus” from the mallow family of flowering plants. Okra is related to hibiscus, cotton and cacao (chocolate). Its origins are uncertain but appear most likely from Africa, South Asia, or Ethiopia with its use dating back to the 7th century. It is believed to have been introduced to the US by the French colonists of Louisiana in the early 1700’s.
A half cup of cooked okra has 25 calories and 2 grams of fiber. It is a significant source of Vitamins A, B, C and potassium.
When buying fresh okra, select dry, firm, medium to dark green pods. The most tender pods with be no longer than 3 inches. Use the day you purchase them if possible, or store in a paper bag in the warmest part of the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Temperatures below 45 degrees will damage the pods. Do not wash pods until ready to use.
Cooking & Uses:
Okra can be eaten raw, pickled, steamed, fried, grilled or cooked into soups and stews. If you have not tried grilled or pan roasted okra you are missing an incredible treat. Simply toss whole okra with olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a hot flat iron on the grill or hot skillet (preferably cast iron- see above picture) on the the stove. Cook and turn just until tender. Absolute finger candy!
To reduce the amount of “slime”, minimize the amount of cuts on the pod and don’t overcook. Prepare the whole pod or just trim the stem end. To utilize the slime qualities, use cut okra for thickening soups, sauces and stews. The delicate flavor of okra combines well with tomatoes, onions, peppers and corn.
Okra leaves may be cooked like beet or dandelion greens, saluted in some olive oil or boiled. Okra pod seeds are pressed for oil and used in many countries where vegetable oils are not readily available. The okra oil is high in unsaturated fats. The seeds are also roasted and used as a coffee substitute in certain regions.
Okra is very easy to grow if you have a space that gets full sun at least 6 hours a day. Plant seeds in the ground once all danger of frost has ended and space 12-15 inches apart. Okra goes well in large pots on your patio or deck. If planting in pots, plant several pots with seeds 2-3 weeks apart for longer production. Once the plants have produced for about a month you can top them out to flush new growth and more branching for added production from each plant. Top plants 2-3 weeks apart to space harvests and to have a ready supply of okra available. Water only when dry and use low nitrogen fertilizers so you don’t end up with more leaves than pods.