Okra is most commonly associated with Southern cuisine, but did you know it originated in 12th century B.C. in Egypt? This heat-loving crop is in the same plant family as hibiscus, and if you’ve ever grown it then that makes sense, as its beautiful flowers closely resemble hibiscus flowers. However, many people who cook okra for the first time ask the same question, “why is it so slimy?” Well, the plant actually secretes a gelatinous substance, called mucilage, when it is sliced open, which can actually be useful as a natural thickener in dishes such as gumbo, but can sometimes scare people away from eating it. Prepared well, okra is not slimy at all; it only gets that way from cooking it too long. Techniques such as quick frying or pickling not only eliminate the sliminess, but actually make it crispy and delicious!
How do you know when it is ready to harvest? Harvest okra when it is no more than 2-3 inches long, or it will become tough and woody. Okra matures quickly; it takes only about 4 days from the time of flowering for it to be ready to harvest. Cut the stem just above the cap with sharp scissors; if the stem is too hard to cut, the pod is probably too old and should be tossed. Harvest every other day in order for it to keep producing, so you get the highest yield.
Use caution and wear gloves when cutting the okra because many varieties are covered with tiny spines that will irritate your skin. Do not worry: this irritation will not happen when you eat them.
How do you store it? Raw okra may be stored in the refrigerator, unwashed, in a paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel in a loose plastic bag for 2 to 3 days. Cooked okra can be stored (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
You can also freeze it for up to 12 months. To freeze, remove the stems at the ends, being careful not to expose the seed cell (the inside). Blanch the pods in boiling water for 3 minutes, then quickly drop them in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain, spread on trays, and freeze (can keep them whole, or slice crosswise). Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag or plastic container, making sure to leave ½-inch of space at the top.
How do you cook it? Wash just before use, and trim the stems off. You can cook them whole, or trim into smaller slices. An easy way to reduce the slimy texture (which occurs once they are cut), is to try cooking it whole and either steaming it briefly (4-6 min), grilling it, frying it, or pickling it.
Okra can also be served raw, or marinated in salads. It goes very well with tomatoes, onions, corn, peppers, and eggplant.
Okra is especially low in calories which can help in weight control. One cup only provides 33 calories. Try boiling instead of pickling or frying if you want to decrease the calories. Okra is an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of folate, calcium, magnesium and fiber. It also contains significant amounts of vitamin K and potassium, as well as the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin- two especially important carotenoids related to vision health.
Ariana Ortiz, Swedish Covenant Hospital Dietitian.
Pickled okra are not slimy at all, they are crisp and crunchy! And since the insides are hollow, they fill up with all that delicious pickling liquid. If you are canning for shelf storage you’ll want to take the extra precautions of sterilizing the jars up front, and sterilizing the lids. But you can skip that if you just want to store them in the fridge and eat them up quickly.
Makes 4 pint jars
1 1/2 pounds of fresh okra (2 1/2 to 4 inches long)
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
4 1/4-inch thick slices of lemon
2 cups cider vinegar (5% acidity)
2 cups water
3 Tbsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp sugar
Special equipment needed:
4 pint canning jars, lids, and screw bands.
A large (at least 16 qt) pot *(for canning only)
Place vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar, reduce heat and keep warm. Rinse the okra and trim the stem ends to 1/4-inch.
Place all pickling spices in a small bowl and stir to combine. Place a lemon slice at the bottom of each jar. Add a tablespoon of the mixed pickling spices to each jar. Place a peeled garlic clove on top of the spices and lemon.
Pack the okra in the jars, alternating stem-side-up and stem-side-down to allow you to pack the okra well into the jars. The top of the okra should come between an inch to 1/2 an inch from the rim of the jar.
Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the jars, up to 1/4-inch from the rim of the jars.
Wipe the rims with a clean damp towel. Place lids on jars and store them chilled in the refrigerator. Prepare this way, they will last one to two months in the refrigerator.