Deeply rooted in Southern food lore, no other vegetable is associated with Cajun, Creole, and Low Country cooking more than Okra. In fact, what would gumbo be without it? It wouldn’t, because along with roux, it’s the gooey juices released from okra that thickens and flavors gumbo. Its taste can be described as somewhere between that of eggplant and artichokes. With its torpedo shape ranging from 2 to 5 inches long, this succulent and mellow green fuzzy pod contains small white, edible seeds. The pods are best eaten when they are harvested young, as mature pods become tough and woody. In fact, mature pods are actually used to make rope and paper. Okra is a member of the Mallow family and is related to cotton, hibiscus, rose of Sharon, and hollyhock
Other common names for okra are Lady’s Fingers and Gumbo. The French call it Gombo, in Spanish it’s known as Quibomo, and in India it’s called Bhindi. Okra is a good source of vitamin C and A, also B complex vitamins, iron and calcium. It is low in calories (1 cup has only 33 calories), fat-free, and a good source of dietary fiber. Although okra is available year-round, is most abundant in summer.
Okra is thought to have originated around parts of Ethiopia. It arrived in the American South in the 1700’s with the slave trade, and introduced by French colonists gaining outstanding popularity in Louisiana. In North Africa and the Middle East, the seeds are toasted and ground, and used as a coffee substitute.
Size counts! Select pods that are no more than 2 to 3 inches in length. The smaller the pod, the more tender they will be. Pods should be bright green, firm and plump. Avoid any that are limp, dry, or have black spots on them.
Store okra without washing in paper bags or plastic food storage bags in the refrigerator. Make sure okra is bone-dry when storing. Any moisture will cause it to become moldy. For the best flavor, be sure to use within a day or two.
To freeze okra, wash and trim off the stems then blanch in boiling water for 2 – 3 minutes. Drain, then loosely pack in freezer bags for up to 6 months.
1 pound okra, about 35 pods trimmed, will yield approximately 3 – 4 cups sliced.
1 (10-ounce) package frozen okra will yield approximately 1 1/4 cups sliced.
1 pound okra is approximately 8 (1/2-cup) servings
Most Common Varieties:
Red Okra – Exceptionally fleshy, sweet and flavorful, with striking colors ranging from crimson to maroon.
Hill Country Heirloom Red – A Texas heirloom, this variety of okra has attractive green pods with reddish ribs and tips.
Louisiana Short – A prolific producer of very tender and extremely plump six-inch pods.
Little Lucy – Dwarf red okra, with small burgundy pods – excellent for growing in containers.
So whether it’s gumbo, succotash, deep-fried or pickled, southerners just seem to know how to savor the pod that makes ‘em proud!