Archive for Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Okra: Love it or hate it

Area growers share favorite cooking methods

August 11, 2004

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Slimy.

That's the age-old knock on okra.

Yes, the seed pods of the okra plant can indeed be gelatinous, if boiled, steamed or sauteed too long.

But when sliced, dipped briefly in milk and egg, rolled in cornmeal and fried up, the vegetable can be delicious. Just ask any Southerner; in the South, okra's a staple in succotash and gumbo.

Here in the Midwest, it's fair to say that people's feelings toward okra run the gamut -- from disgusted to delighted. That's the way Kevin Irick, owner of Irick Farms in Linwood, sees it.

"It's one of those vegetables that if people like it, they love it. If they don't, then they don't want anything to do with it," says Irick, who grows a variety of produce, including okra, on his 12 acres.

For the past 10 years or so, he's sold his goods at the Lawrence Farmers Market in the 1000 block of Vermont Street: cantaloupe, watermelon, blackberries, okra, winter squash, sweet potatoes and zucchini.

"If you cook okra whole, it's kind of slimy. But when you slice it and fry it, it's not slimy at all. It's really good fried or in gumbo," Irick says.

Okra, a tropical plant that's in the hibiscus family, loves hot, summer weather, and it's in season.

Okra is often maligned as slimy because the vegetable can get
gelatinous when cooked too long. Many area growers and eaters find
it is delicious when rolled in cornmeal and fried or used in soups.

Okra is often maligned as slimy because the vegetable can get gelatinous when cooked too long. Many area growers and eaters find it is delicious when rolled in cornmeal and fried or used in soups.

Just ask around -- the Lawrence area has many fans of okra, slime or no.

Like Tom King, head of the meat and seafood department at the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa. A trained chef, King's been enjoying the qualities of okra for years.

"I love it, because nothing else tastes like okra," King says.

"Generally, because of its mucilaginous properties, it finds its way into soups and stews as a thickening agent. My favorite way of serving it in restaurants is rolling it in a little bit of cornmeal and frying it up. Fried okra with a little squeeze of lemon."

That sticky goo (technically called bioactive saccharides -- just natural sugars) doesn't have to be a part of cooking this vegetable.









¢ Boil or microwave whole pods until just tender. Dress with lemon juice and ground pepper.¢ Stew with tomatoes. Serve over rice.¢ Add okra to curries or saute with spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric or curry powder.¢ If okra is used in a soup, stew or casserole that requires longer cooking, it should be cut up to exude its juices and thicken the dish.¢ Okra pods can be sliced, dipped in egg, breaded with corn meal and baked or fried.¢ Saute okra with corn kernels, onion and sweet peppers for a tasty side dish.¢ Okra has a similar flavor to eggplant and can be used as a substitute in recipes.¢ Use raw okra in tossed salads.Source: FoodReference.com

"A lot of people stay away from it because they say it's too slimy. If you're leery of the slime, putting vinegar in the cooking water or on the pods themselves will eliminate a good deal of it. But if you're making gumbo, you want the slime (as a thickener)," King says.

Irick says his okra sells well at the farmers market, and Linda Cowden, produce manager at the Lawrence co-op, says some of her customers like it as well.

"We do have people who ask about it. It's not a huge seller, but people like it when we have it. I grew up with okra, because my grandma grew it," Cowden says.

"I like it breaded with cornmeal and fried, or pickled. It's slimy when you're cutting it up, or when you boil it."

Marcia Peters, of rural Douglas County, likes the taste of okra just fine. So does her husband, Galen, and their sons, Bryan, 12, and Nolan, 9.

An okra blossom develops into a small, green pod that grows to an
edible size in two or three days.

An okra blossom develops into a small, green pod that grows to an edible size in two or three days.

"My boys eat it raw, off the plant. They kind of like it that way. My favorite recipe is (for) a tomato-and-okra stir fry. Or I dip it in egg and then cornmeal, and then I fry it," Peters says. "And we like to can a little bit, so we have it through the winter."

Her family lives on about 18 acres, on which they grow sweet corn, okra, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, beets, potatoes and black raspberries.

They sell some of their produce to the Lawrence co-op and some at the farmers market in Baldwin.

Cooked the right way, she says, okra doesn't have to be slimy. But she has a different criticism of the oft-maligned vegetable.

"It's not very fun to pick. It's itchy. Some people even say when they handle the okra after it's harvested, they break out. We grow a spineless okra that's less itchy than the older, original kind," Marcia Peters says.

"As a matter of fact, I don't pick hardly any of the okra. Galen and the boys, that's their project."

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