All About Okra - Origin, Planting and Cooking with Okra
All About Okra
Okra is one of my favorite vegetables to plant in my garden each year. Not only is it tasty, it is easy to grow and drought tolerant. Okra has a long history and I have included information on its origin, as well as how to plant, harvest and cook with okra.
Okra, (Abelmoschus esculentus), is a vegetable of the mallow family. It is related to cotton, cocoa, and the hibiscus. Okra can grow up to approximately 2 meters in height, although there is a dwarf variety that is somewhat shorter. The flowers of the okra plant have five white to yellow petals with a red or purple spot at the center. Okra “pods”, can grow up to 18 cm long and contain many small white round seeds. The immature seed pods are eaten as a vegetable in various countries and used to thicken soups and stews.
The origin of okra is somewhat disputed. Most believe that okra was introduced to the southeastern part of North America in the early 18th century. Thomas Jefferson talked about okra as early as 1781. Okra was common the southern parts of the United States as early as 1806. Okra may have been introduced to southeastern parts of North America as being brought over from Africa during the slave trade days. However, okra has been found growing wild along the banks of the Nile and it is believed that the Egyptians were the first cultivators in the 12th century B.C.
There are three common types of okra:
- Annie Oakley – Is a hybrid, compact plant, with extra tender pods.
- Dwarf Green Long Pod – This variety has ribbed pods and grows shorter, more compact plants.
- Clemson Spineless – This variety has less “spiny hairs” and is my favorite.
Okra is grown in tropical and warm temperate regions around the world. It is one of the most heat and drought tolerant vegetable you can grow. Okra grows best in warm soil and tolerates hot temperatures. You can plant okra in late spring after you have planted all your other vegetables. Some gardeners soak the seeds prior to planting. This allows the seed to germinate sooner. Sow the seeds approximately 1 inch deep and 12 to 24 inches apart to keep them from crowding. Once the plants begin growing, you can thin them out if necessary. Over crowding can keep your okra from producing to it’s full potential. Okra can tolerate hot, dry weather but needs to be watered as the soil dries out.
You want to cut the okra pods before they fully mature. The older they are, the tougher the pods will be. Let them get to approximately 2-3 inches then cut the pods from the stalk. The stem of the okra tends to be rather tough, so you will want to use some sharp garden shears. Okra grows quickly and will need to be picked, usually every other day. You may want to wear long sleeves and gloves when cutting your okra as the pods have short “hairs” that can be irritating to your skin.
Nutritional Value per 100g (3.5 oz.)
129 kJ (31 kcal)
81 mg (8%)
Okra contains lots of valuable nutrients, almost half of which is in the form of soluble fiber, which helps lower serum cholesterol. The second half is in the form of insoluble fiber, which helps improve the health of the intestinal tract and lower the risk of some cancers. One-half of a cup of okra contains about 10% of the recommended levels of B6 and folic acid. There are many healthy benefits of okra, try to add some to your recipes!
Cooking with Okra
Okra pods are what is called mucilaginous, referring to the slime that results when cooking okra. It is this mucilage that contains most of the good soluble fiber. To minimize the slime, you can keep the pods whole or slice them and minimizing cooking time, such as a stir-fry. Adding a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice will also help. Most cooks prefer to slice the okra and use it in soups or stews where the mucilage dissolves and acts as a thickener. Many people prefer fried okra. Once you cover the sliced okra with cornmeal, it keeps the “slime” inside and will fry up crispy. You can cook okra with tomatoes, which are slightly acidic and will help reduce the slime as well. One of my family’s favorite snacks, is pickled okra. You prepare it much the same, as you would make pickles. I have published my mother-in-law’s wonderful pickled okra recipe, you will have to check it out. Okra is also an easy vegetable to freeze to use during the fall and winter months.
Have you eaten okra before?
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