An Itch for Okra!


Okra is the people’s vegetable, grown all over the South and used in comfort foods like  gumbo,  breaded & fried and can be used as a thickening agent.  Okra’s pods are fuzzy and fingerlike and come in a variety of greens and dark reds.   Okra is a tropical plant in the mallow family and traces its roots to Ethiopia and Egypt along the Nile River.

When I was growing up, okra was a very frightening word in our household, though not in the way that lima beans or brussel sprouts may have frightened others.   The word “okra” meant that we would be garbing ourselves in long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and long pants in over a hundred degree weather and heading out into the fields to pick.  Picking okra is a hot, itchy business, and never any fun.  It is only grown in really hot areas like the deep South, the Southwest like Tucson or Las Cruces, where I was raised, and the pods make their appearance in mid-summer when the thick layers of clothing are highly unwelcome.  The stocks can reach as tall as six feet, and the entire plant is covered with itchy fuzziness.  If you aspire to grow and pick your own okra, you will undoubtedly be overcome with the itch.  A little tomato juice can offer some relief, but a much better option in my opinion is to leave the picking to the professionals and to purchase okra at your local farmers’ market.

When Shopping for okra, select pods that are 2 to 3 inches in length for their tenderness.  Look for those that are bright green or deep red, plump and unblemished.  If they have black spots on them and look dry, they are not fresh. After purchase, store fresh okra in the refrigerator and use within a day or two.  Beyond that, they begin to lose their freshness, flavor and nutrients. If you want to freeze fresh okra, freezing whole pods is best or chop quickly as they will start to ooze and throw in a freezer bag and toss in the freezer.  To use frozen okra, it is best to remove as much of the moisture as possible before cooking by spreading on a paper towel, or patting it dry after it has thawed.  Okra can be eaten raw, steamed, braised, sautéed, canned, and the Southern favorite- fried!  Let’s hear it for Okra….and let someone else do the picking! See you at the market!