Okra — you either like it or you hate it. Those who hate it usually blame the way okra becomes slimy and silky when it's cooked, but others enjoy it for this same reason. Also known as "lady's fingers," okra is clearly one of those vegetables that means different things to different people.
Where to Buy Okra
Fresh okra is a slender, green, tube-like vegetable, thus the reference to female fingers. It's actually a pod filled with small white seeds. It should feel firm but not hard. Look for bright green okra with unblemished skin when you're buying it — if you can find it at your local market. It's not a highly popular vegetable and not all grocers stock it. Your best chances are in May through September when okra is in season.
There are several varieties of okra - some grow long while others grow short. Some are purple and others are green, but green okra is the most common form found in the U.S.
The History of Okra
Okra isn't native to the Caribbean. Like so many other foods, it arrived there by virtue of slaves and settlers bringing it along when they arrived centuries ago — in this case, most likely African slaves. Okra is native to Ethiopia, but it grows well in warm, tropical climates.
Okra can be stored in your refrigerator's vegetable compartment in paper bags for up to four days. When you're ready to prepare it for cooking, remove it from the fridge and bring it up to room temperature first. It will release less moisture when it's cooked.
Pat the okra dry before cutting or slicing it. Exactly how you slice it can vary from one household to the next, not to mention from one part of the world to another. Okra can be cut into rounds, sliced lengthwise or cut diagonally. Of course, you can always opt to leave the okra whole.
Cooking With Okra
Okra is most commonly used in soups and stews, such as gumbo. It contains mucilage, a substance that acts as a natural thickener when it's heated. Okra is breaded and deep fried in some Caribbean regions, and some cuisines have been known to pickle it. Pickling can help cut down on the slimy consistency okra takes on when it's cooked.
Cutting Down on the Slime
A few methods have proved successful in reducing the slime quotient of cooked okra. Some cooks suggest soaking it in vinegar before cooking it but make sure to completely pat the okra dry. Cooking it at very high heat, such as by grilling it or sautéing it, also works. You can precook okra this way before adding it to other recipes.
If you're one of those who isn't put off by okra's texture, it offers several health benefits. It's rich in fiber and remarkably low in calories. It's high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as several antioxidants that include beta-carotene, xanthin, and lutein. Okra offers a host of B-complex vitamins, too, including niacin, thiamin, pyridoxine and pantothenic acid.