Let’s OK the Okra

photoVariety is the spice of life, at least when it comes to nutrition. As for our brain power, moving out of our comfort zone and doing something we haven’t done before is a great mental exercise as well. This was definitely the mindset I was in when buying my first-ever batch of okra. Honestly, I hadn’t heard of this vegetable until my husband declared that he really likes it and was bombarded simultaneously by it at farmers markets everywhere. In fact, I had to look at cookbooks for inspiration, and the German name of okra in the dictionary for translation (Okraschoten, for those who care). So if you crave okra, read on to see what I learned about this rather unusual vegetable. If not, take this as inspiration to go out and add some lesser-known vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes or celeriac to your diet. Come and cook with us!

Okra is generally viewed as a Southern-dish-vegetable, and it actually was brought state-side by African slaves, or perhaps even earlier by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who were eating it since the fall of the Roman empire. Some believe okra’s origin is present-day Ethiopia from where it spread to Arabia, Asia and India before making it’s way to the United States. They are definitely not very common at Italian, German or Tyrolean dinner tables!

What makes okra special is that it is kind of slimy. This is because the plant contains a gelatinous substance, called mucilage, that oozes when it’s sliced open. It is this thickener that is often used in stews such as Creole-style gumbo. At the same time, it is also what makes some people turn away from okra, but there are ways to get around that: don’t overcook okra, quick-fry it in a cast-iron skillet or leave the pods intact without trimming the little caps before cooking. You can also blanch trimmed pods in water spiked with vinegar or let them marinate in lemon water. This way the ooze factor should not be an issue at all. When buying okra, look for young pods free of bruises, tender, but not soft and no more than 4 inches in length. Okra can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days but is best used fresh.

Looking at several references for inspiration on what to do with my freshly acquired okra, I was surprised not to find a mention of it in Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables cook book. In terms of novelty, I knew I was on to something. After some research, I ended up with a tomato-based side dish that was very fast and easy and offered a great flavor combination, letting the okra fully stand out. We all loved it. Come and cook with us!

Okra with Tomatoes and Ginger

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