Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is one of my favorite plants to grow during the heat of summer. A member of the mallow family, okra has large leaves and lovely flowers that resemble hibiscus. Here in the south, it can grow eight or nine feet tall, and in a few weeks, I’ll need a ladder to harvest it. As you can see from all the buds in the photo, okra is prolific, and at this time of year, we harvest it almost daily. I like to underplant okra with jalapenos—they are happy companions—both in the garden and the kitchen!
There is some argument over the origin of okra, but it is likely from South Asia, Ethiopia and and/or West Africa, and it is enjoyed in many cultures, from Asia to India to the Caribbean. From what I have read, the slaves brought okra seeds to America with them as far back as the early 18th century, and the plants acclimated well here in the deep south.
When preparing okra, the pods should be picked while still small…I prefer them no longer than my finger. At this size, the okra is tendersweet and cooks quickly. A quick stir-fry is all it needs, but okra is also famously delicious sliced into coins, soaked in buttermilk, rolled in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. Many people find the mucilage, or sliminess, of okra objectionable, but if it is cooked properly, okra is delicious! A cook may use the mucilage as an excellent natural thickener for stews—as in traditional southern gumbo. Okra is very nutritious and an excellent source of fiber.
One way we really enjoy okra is to pickle it. If you have never tried pickling before, this is an excellent recipe for beginners, as it does not require canning. It takes only a few moments to make, and the pickles will keep in your fridge for a couple of weeks, but don’t count on them lasting that long! If you live up north and don’t have access to okra, try this recipe with green beans.
Spicy Pickled Okra
- 2 1/2 cups white vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 4 fresh dill sprigs
- 2 green or red jalapeño peppers, halved lengthwise
- 1 1/2 pounds small okra pods
- Combine vinegar and the next 7 ingredients (through cumin seeds) in a large saucepan; bring to a boil. Cook 1 minute or until sugar and salt dissolve, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; stir in fresh dill sprigs, jalapeños, and okra pods. Cool completely; pour mixture into an airtight container or clean jars. Cover and chill.
- Refrigerate okra in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Recipe originally published by Mike Wilson, Cooking Light, JUNE 2005