It would be difficult to find a garden vegetable more versatile or resilient than okra. Tall plants with delicate cream and burgundy-tinted flowers give way to slender pointed pods that can be stewed, stuffed, blanched, sautéed, deep-fried, roasted, grilled or even eaten raw. The history of okra is a long one and deeply woven into the fabric of American history. In an article titled "The Secret History of Okra" ( https://toriavey.com/history-okra-soup-recipe), award-winning writer and culinary historian Michael Twitty explains that okra had its genesis in the Abyssinian Plateau, in the area we now know as Ethiopia. It spread across Western and Central Africa around 2,000 BCE and over the centuries it became an integral ingredient throughout the continent and African diaspora. Okra spread east with Islam into India, where it is known as bhindi, or "ladies fingers," and west to the Americas. Twitty points out that okra's cultivation in the colonies, along with other African food staples, was integral to the slave trade. "Understanding the food of the people you were enslaving was critical; it ensured they would be well fed during the perilous middle passage and when they arrived in the new world. ... As cruel a business as the slave trade was, it was still recognized that culinary homesickness was a great deterrent to the 'seasoning' process."
Okra became an established ingredient in the American colonies by the 18th century, first arriving in the port cities of Charleston and New Orleans before making its way throughout the South, even becoming a favorite of Thomas Jefferson in his famed Monticello garden. While often thought of as a strictly Southern staple, okra can thrive in sunny plots further north. A member of the same plant family as cotton and hibiscus, okra is a tall tropical plant with showy blooms that is both deer- and drought-resistant. Gardeners in more northerly climates can give their crop a head start by starting seeds indoors in peat pots in early May, then carefully planting them out once soil temperatures have reached at least 70 degrees. Harvest okra pods when they're small and tender and can be easily snapped in half.
Okra's adaptability in the kitchen and vigor in the garden is matched by its powerful nutrition. Rich in vitamins K, C, A, B6, thamin and folate, okra is also a significant source of insoluble fiber, which helps to scrub the digestive system, as well as soluble fiber. Soluble fibers dissolve into water and form a gel during digestion, which helps to slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream and helps create a feeling of fullness when consumed, making foods like okra ideal for those looking to manage blood sugar or lose weight. Okra is an excellent source of this wonderful compound, thanks to the infamous slime, technically called mucilage, that can develop when it's cooked.
It is precisely because of this slime that okra is such a polarizing ingredient. However, it's possible that okra detractors just haven't had it prepared well. While okra lends itself to a variety of preparations, it's long been used to thicken soups and stews such as Ghanaian groundnut (peanut) stew or New Orleans-style gumbo. A clutch ingredient in vegetable broth, okra results in a product that is rich and unctuous like a slow-simmered bone broth, and it makes good use of tough, overgrown pods because they'll eventually be strained out.
While those preparations lean into the slippery side of okra, there are ways to prepare it that minimizes the goo. Hot, dry heat and increased surface area are key to preparing crispy, toothsome okra. Roasting or grilling whole or halved okra pods is perhaps the simplest and one of the most delicious ways to enjoy this peak-season veggie. Toss whole or halved pods with salt and olive oil and roast on a baking sheet in a hot 450-degree oven until blistered and lightly charred, or skewer the pods and grill over hot coals. This is a wonderful combination with grilled peppers. Eat them as is or drizzle with a chili- and garlic-spiked mayo or zippy Dijon and shallot vinaigrette.
To maximize fried okra's crunchy factor, slice the pods lengthwise into quarters to create skinny okra "shoestring" fries. Toss the pods with salt and a mixture of cornstarch and cornmeal before frying in hot oil until golden brown and crispy. Serve with remoulade or spicy ranch dressing.
Stewed Okra and Tomatoes
Adapted from a recipe in an old cookbook from the Junior League of New Orleans
¼ pound bacon, cut into small pieces
1½ pounds fresh okra, sliced into 1/4-inch coins
1 cup chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped green pepper
1 bay leaf
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon salt
2 sprigs fresh thyme or a pinch of dried
Tabasco and black pepper, to taste
Fry bacon in a nonreactive skillet until crisp. Remove bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels and set aside. Add sliced okra to the hot bacon fat and sauté until very tender, about 15 minutes. Add onions, garlic, green pepper, celery and bay leaf and cook until onions are transparent, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook 10 minutes more. Add salt, thyme, Tabasco and pepper and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes more, then remove bay leaf and stir in the crumbled bacon. Serve alongside fried fish or chicken or over steamed rice.