Easing into the ooze of Okra

July 10, 2002|By Chris Copley

I was born in Georgia and lived there for nearly four years before moving back north to my parents' home. But four years was enough time to sample grits, catfish, fried chicken and other traditional Southern foods, courtesy of my mother's adventurous spirit in the kitchen.

One Southern specialty, however, missed my mother's culinary attention. I don't think I have ever eaten okra.

Okra is the unripe seed pods of a tall flowering plant in the same family as the hibiscus and rose of Sharon bush. The plants grow three to six feet tall and are sometimes used for their ornamental beauty in landscaping.

The pods are green and harvested when they are two to three inches long. They are commonly served in gumbo -- a thick, vegetable-and-meat Louisiana stew.

Maybe I've eaten okra in a gumbo. Maybe one of my elder relatives has slipped it into one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink casseroles I ate politely as a young man. But I cannot remember ever eating okra when I could tell it was okra.


That changed Monday.

I bought a pound of okra and took it home.

Following a recipe supplied by Herald-Mail Lifestyle editor Ginny Fite, I soaked the okra, then sliced the finger-sized pods into half-inch segments, tossed them in corn meal and fried them in oil over medium heat in a copper frying pan.

I served the okra to my panel of homegrown experts -- my wife, Yolanda, and our children, 16-year-old Julia, 13-year-old Rowan and 10-year-old Fedora.

My son, Rowan, and daughter, Fedora, are both vegetarians and took the first bites. And the second. They continued gobbling, dipping okra into Pickapeppa hot sauce when I put that on the table.

My wife took a bite and asked for salt.

"There's not much flavor," she said. "It feels weird in my mouth, which I don't like."

"It's like eggplant," said Fedora.

"It's like eggplant that doesn't have much flavor," replied Yolanda.

"I think it goes really well with the cornmeal," said Rowan, a budding cook.

Julia tried a bite and concluded okra was not for her. I had a couple bites, noticed that the loose, thick feeling of the okra did remind me of eggplant. But I preferred the taste of okra, especially with a dash of Pickapeppa.

A Southern standard

Joan Carter, a French-trained chef and registered dietician in Houston, Texas, said Ginny's corn meal recipe is one of the okra standards in the South.

Carter described another frying pan dish using okra.

"Saute some garlic and toss on the okra," she said. "Layer them with some chopped tomatoes. Tomatoes and okra are kind of a standard pairing. Maybe some parsley and lemon juice and little salt and pepper. Some onions would be good in that, too. It's kind of a relish or side dish."

But gumbo is the typical way to use okra in coastal Texas kitchens. In fact, okra's sliminess is the source of gumbo's thick, gooey texture.

Registered dieticians with the American Dietetic Association agree frying okra is not the most nutritious way to serve it.

"In my dietary counseling, I don't see a lot of people who use it. Of those who do, a lot of them eat it fried," said Cynthia Sass, a registered dietician in Tampa. "I say, if they are going to eat it fried, be moderate. Have non-fried foods in the same meal."

Carter said okra was not a nutritional powerhouse, but did supply plenty of fiber.

"Steamed, a half a cup of okra provides two grams of fiber -- that's pretty darn good," she said. "It's also rich in potassium and has 25 calories, one and a half grams of protein, six grams carbohydrates and not quite 10 percent of the daily requirement of folic acid. I always say eat green and be merry."

Tim Higgins, clinical nutrition manager with Washington County Hospital, said he recommends eating green vegetables in general.

"Vegetables are a good source of vitamins," he said. "You get fiber, which is lacking in most people diet's these days. What the fiber does is carry the impurities out of our systems. It also acts as a brush and takes cholesterol out of our bowels."

The unique, slimy texture of sliced okra is a problem for some people new to the vegetable, Carter said.

"It's a little more slippery than eggplant. It has something of the tecture of zucchini, particularly if you deep-fry it," she said. "But once okra is cooked with other things, you don't really notice the texture."

  • Nutrition facts for 1/2 cup sliced, cooked okra (according to USDA Website):

  • Calories 25

  • Dietary Fiber 2 grams

  • Protein 1.52 grams

  • Carbohydrates 5.76 grams

  • Vitamin A 460 IU

  • Vitamin C 13.04 mg

  • Folic acid 36.5 micrograms

  • Calcium 50.4 mg

  • Iron 0.4 mg

  • Potassium 256.6 mg

  • Magnesium 46 mg

Okra and Corn with Tomatoes

Serve this Carolina favorite over a bowl of long-grain rice with a piece of hot corn bread. The okra should be young, not longer than two inches. Vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh bell peppers add to the richness of this dish.

2 tablespoons each butter and canola oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced into rounds

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon each thyme, red pepper flakes and basil

1 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced

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