From Allison Thaemlitz
Okra, love it or hate it, is one of the single most iconic southern foods. It is most famous fried or in gumbo, but there is more to this humble vegetable. At the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, we love our okra, so much that we put it on our logo! So, let’s share our love of this unique veggie and take a closer look at okra.
What is it?
Okra is a part of the mallow family and a relative of both cotton and hibiscus, and there are over 50 species of okra both wild and cultivated around the world.
Okra originated in Africa, probably in Ethiopia, and from there it spread along trade routes to the Mediterranean, India, and with slave ships to the Americas. Okra is a stubborn plant that does well in poor soil and survives in both hot and drought conditions. Its height varies by species, and some have been known to grow as high as 10 ft tall. Okra flowers resemble their hibiscus relatives and tend to be white with a red center.
Okra in the Garden
When planting okra leave about 3 ft of space for the plant’s wide root system. Okra loves the sun, so plant your okra plants in an area that receives around 8-10 hours of full sun a day. Okra prefers sandy soil with good drainage, and only needs to be watered every 7-10 days depending on the weather.
Okra flowers are self-pollinating and generally only last one day, so treasure the moment! Once okra pods begin growing, harvest regularly to promote production. As long as conditions remain favorable, okra plants will continue to produce throughout the season. Check the plant regularly as okra pods grow quickly and harvest pods before they reach over 4 in. Unlike other vegetables, bigger is not better when it comes to okra. The larger the pod, the more tough and fibrous it will be. Additionally, the growth of large pods tends to exhaust the okra plant and diminishes its ability to produce an abundance of tasty okra.
Be careful and cover yourself up when caring for and harvesting okra; the leaves are covered in a fuzzy down that will irritate the skin. Use a knife or scissors to harvest your okra with neat cuts.
An argument could be made that okra is an untapped superfood. Okra is low in fat and sodium and very low in cholesterol. 1 cup of raw okra has only 30 calories, and around 66% of the daily allowance of Vitamin K, which supports blood and bone health. Additionally, okra is a good source of protein, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, magnesium, and more.
So, if you are looking to improve your diet and eat healthier, consider okra!
A nutritional breakdown of Okra: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2498/2
Okra & Slime
Slime is one of the greatest complaints about okra. The slime is also called mucilage and it serves a vital purpose in the survival of the okra plant. Mucilage helps the plant store water for dry spells and helps the seeds sprout. It is useful for the plant, but unappetizing for a meal. Luckily, there are ways to avoid and minimize them amount of slime in your okra.
- Wash & dry your okra before cooking
- Select smaller okra.
- Avoid cutting the okra prior to cooking.
- If you have to cut your okra, wipe your knife in-between cuts to prevent a buildup of slime.
- Avoid overcooking or overcrowding the okra in your pan.
- Add an acid (lemon juice, tomato, vinegar, wine, etc.) while cooking the okra
Do you have any tips or tricks for cooking okra? Let us know! Okra may be tricky but the variety of delicious and nutritious meals it makes possible are not to be missed!
Join us for the month of April 2018 as we Spotlight the Gumbo Garden as part of the 10 Years of SoFAB programming! To celebrate the development of the Gumbo Garden we will be hosting a variety of programs and demonstrations that explore growing your own produce, using local ingredients, and enjoying the all-too-brief season of (pleasant) outdoor cooking in New Orleans.