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Archive for Friday, August 9, 1996

WITHOUT SLIME, OKRA A REAL TREAT

August 9, 1996

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I take a perverse satisfaction from telling people how much I enjoy growing okra. In this part of the country, where aversion to this Southern staple is rampant, liking okra is a ticket to instant notoriety.

For shock value, eating okra in Kansas is on par with swallowing live goldfish. People make faces when they find out you do it. A few may even drop you from their Christmas card lists.

Although the problem with okra usually isn't a subject for polite society, I'm not afraid to confront the matter head on. It is after all a food issue and that's what we're about here.

So here goes: Okra's offending characteristic is, in a word, slime. Okra pods are chock-full of it.

And what slimy slime it is, too. Yuck.

However, that same characteristic of okra provides the thickener for gumbo and contributes its distinctive flavor to the trademark taste of that dish.

People who are repulsed by okra also will tell you that the stuff is a nightmare to pick because the plants act like stinging nettles. While that used to be true, the problem is less so now that varieties like Clemson Spineless have taken much of the itch out of okra harvesting.

I could eliminate the problem entirely if I were willing to wear long sleeves into the garden at the the height of the summer but it seems easier to tolerate the short-lived rash on the undersides of my wrists.

I plant okra every year because it's exotic and there's nothing else like it in the list of vegetables that grow in this climate. In addition to flavor and texture, there's its appearance.

The finger-shaped pods should be picked when they're about three inches long and at this time of year, particularly with the recent rains, okra picking needs to be a daily if not a morning and evening ritual.

If you let them get too big, they get woody and aren't edible. When okra is in the throes of rapid-fire pod production, this is a phenomenon that can happen in a matter of hours.

Further, as a member of the hibiscus family, okra has beautiful large yellow and purple blooms. The plants themselves have red ribs that are reminiscent of rhubarb. Even if I never let the stuff in my kitchen, I'd still grow it to look at.

Then there's the matter of okra's history, which takes it back to Africa. Slaves secretly brought the hard, round seeds for the vegetable they called ``gumbo'' when they were transported to this hemisphere. I am reminded of this every time I plant okra seeds, which require overnight soaking and thoroughly warmed ground to germinate.

Even without okra's other compensatory attributes, the slime isn't an issue for me because I cook my okra until the slime disappears. I'm not sure where it goes, exactly, but all that matters is that it doesn't end up on my dinner plate.

My husband showed me how to achieve this a couple of years ago when he tossed okra in the wok, cooking it until the slime was no longer visible and even the staunchest okra detractor would have no cause to complain.

Southern-style vegetable medleys invariably use okra. James Beard's ``American Cookery'' offers the following variation. If you want to go deeply Southern, add a cup of lima beans to this recipe.

Corn, Okra and Tomatoes

4 tablespoons butter

the matter of okra's history, which takes it back to Africa. Slaves secretly brought the hard, round seeds for the vegetable they called ``gumbo'' when they were transported to this hemisphere. I am reminded of this every time I plant okra seeds, which require overnight soaking and thoroughly warmed ground to germinate.

Even without okra's other compensatory attributes, the slime isn't an issue for me because I cook my okra until the slime disappears. I'm not sure where it goes, exactly, but all that matters is that it doesn't end up on my dinner plate.

My husband showed me how to achieve this a couple of years ago when he tossed okra in the wok, cooking it until the slime was n

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