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What’s fresh in June? Okra: it’s not just for gumbo

WHETHER FRIED, PICKLED OR GRILLED, NO OTHER VEGETABLE TASTES QUITE LIKE THIS VERSATILE SOUTHERN DELICACY.


Story by Bailey Gilliam

Okra is an important staple of Southern cuisine. This fruit masquerading as a vegetable is most frequently used in the Lowcountry as a thickening agent for gumbo or fried up with cornmeal as a side dish. While some people can’t get over its slimy texture, okra has a myriad of health benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked. Keep reading to learn more about okra’s health benefits, how to grow it, where to get it and how to incorporate it into your diet with or without the slimy texture disliked by many.

Picture of health

Okra is high in vitamins C and K but also provides significant amounts of protein, which is odd for most fruits and vegetables. It contains beneficial antioxidants that may reduce the risk of serious diseases, prevent inflammation and contribute to overall health. It also contains polyphenols which may contribute to heart and brain health. Research suggests that okra may bind to cholesterol in your gut and lower blood cholesterol levels. The protein lectin present in okra is currently being studied for its role in cancer prevention and treatment. It also may lower blood sugar. Okra is a great food for pregnant women because one cup of okra meets their daily folate needs; folate is important for preventing neural tube defects. In short, it’s worth adding okra to your summer sides to reap its many health benefits.

Grow your own

The reason okra is such a Southern staple is because it grows best in the smoldering heat. If you’re thinking about planting okra, remember to plant when evening temperatures are in the 60s or warmer. Lucky for us, Lowcountry weather gives us a larger window to plant okra. Despite its love of heat, it is important to give okra at least 1 inch of water every week. Space your okra plants 10 inches apart in a very sunny area that has fertile, well-drained soil (thank you, sand!). Pods should appear within two months, and harvest time comes when the pods are between 2 to 4 inches long. The beautiful thing about okra is that you can cut the pods every day or two and they will keep coming.

FIND YOUR FAVORITE

Okra comes in many distinct varieties, such as the Clemson Spineless, Jambalaya, Star of David and Burgundy. Most of these varieties differ in size, shape and ideal harvesting days. The pods of okras can either be red or green. They don’t differ in taste, and red okras will turn green when cooked.

Farm fresh

• Farmers Market of Bluffton: Purchase locally grown okra from noon to 5 p.m. on Thursdays in Old Town Bluffton. Tuten Farm, Adam’s Farm, Otis Daise Farm, The Stevensons Farm and Wills Lowcountry Produce are just a few of the vendors that could have some of the freshest produce you’ll ever taste.
• If you’re looking for a literal farm-to-table experience, check out these local farms that sell okra: Okatee River Brand Produce, Dempsey Farms (St. Helena), Pasture Shed Farm (St. Helena) and Breland Hill Farm (Ruffin).
• Supermarkets: Our favorite spots for okra are Publix, Whole Foods, Kroger and Harris Teeter – in that order.

Cooked to perfection

Okra can be consumed in a number of ways – raw, pickled, stir-fried, baked, grilled, stewed – you name it. The No. 1 reason people dislike okra is the “slimy” texture. To reduce the slime factor, pair it with acid. Add any acid when cooking okra — tomatoes, lemon juice, or vinegar — and you’ll end up with a less slimy dish. This means cooking okra can be as simple and delicious as throwing some okra pods and chopped tomatoes in a roasting pan with a little salt and pepper or Cajun seasoning and baking it all on medium-high for 30 to 40 minutes. The other method of cooking okra to appease those put off by the texture is grilling it. Take medium-sized whole pods, brush with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper or some smoked paprika. Grill on high heat until the pods begin to brown on each side and serve hot with a generous squeeze of fresh lime. The light charring brings out the underlying sweetness of the pods, and the lime adds that previously mentioned acidity balance and a delicious flavor profile. On top of all those flavors is the slime-reducing nature of high-heat preparations. LL


Fried okra

Every Southerner’s grandmother made okra.

INGREDIENTS
10 okra pods, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1 egg, beaten
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil

DIRECTIONS [1] In a small bowl, soak okra in the egg for 5 to 10 minutes. In a medium bowl, combine cornmeal, salt and pepper. [2] Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heart. Dredge okra in the cornmeal mixture, coating evenly. [3] Carefully place okra in hot oil; stir continuously. Reduce heat to medium when the okra first starts to brown and cook until golden. Drain on paper towels.


Bourbon-brined pickled peppered okra

How many pecks of pickled peppered okra did Peter Piper pick?

INGREDIENTS
1 1/4 pounds small okra pods, trimmed
3 medium-size Fresno chiles, quartered lengthwise
3 small bay leaves
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) bourbon
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 1/4 cups white distilled vinegar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt

DIRECTIONS [1] Pack okra evenly into three 1-pint jars, alternating tips and stem ends to get more in each jar. Stuff 4 chile quarters and 1 bay leaf in each jar. Pour 2 tablespoons of bourbon and vinegar into each jar. [2] Cook mustard seeds, coriander seeds and peppercorns in a small saucepan over medium until toasted, lightly browned and very fragrant. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Boil until sugar and salt completely dissolve, about 3 minutes. [3] Pour mixture evenly into jars. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Cover with lids and chill 24 hours before serving. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.


Shrimp and okra gumbo

Gumbo is another Southern staple.

INGREDIENTS
6 tablespoons butter
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green bell pepper
1 1/2 cups finely chopped celery
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes
2 (16 ounce) packages cut okra
1 (32 ounce) container chicken broth
2 bay leaves
2 pounds medium-size raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon filé powder
Hot cooked rice

DIRECTIONS [1] Melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium; add onion and the next 3 ingredients and sauté for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. [2] Stir in thyme, salt and pepper and cook 1 to 2 minutes. [3] Stir in tomatoes, okra, broth and bay leaves. [4] Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. [5] Add shrimp, hot sauce and filé powder; cook 3 to 5 minutes or just until shimp turns pink. [6] Remove and discard bay leaves. Serve over rice.