Eat Good Food

We Love Okra (So Will You)

okra

A relative of cotton, cacao, and hibiscus — okra thrives in tropical, warm, and temperate climates. Which mean is does beautifully in South.

Hailing from Louisiana, SHED co-owner Cindy Daniel grows it on her family’s HomeFarm, where its taste speaks of childhood pleasures.

Okra is commonly braised, grilled, roasted, and — especially in Southern states — fried. 

In addition to flourishing as a pickle, it has a flavor that works well when stewed with other summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

History

  • Okra originated in Africa, but is a staple in cuisines across the globe, from the Middle East to the Southeastern U.S., where its seeds were carried to North America on slave ships over three centuries ago.
  • By the 19th century, the use of the plant was widespread in the U.S.

Tidbits and Terminology

  • Known in many English-speaking countries as ladies’ fingers, ochro or gumbo, okra is a flowering plant in the mallow family.
  • According to culinary historian Jessica Harris, the word “okra” is derived from the word okuru, the name of the plant in the Igbo language of Nigeria.

Cultivation and Harvest

  • The vegetable is at its peak in the summer – especially in the months of July and August, tapering off in early fall.
  • In his book The Gift of Southern Cooking, Scott Peacock describes his childhood method of harvesting okra: “In the fierce heat, the pods grew rapidly. The small ones that weren’t ready in the morning would be ready by dusk (by the next day they’d be too mature). My sister and I would go into the patch with tube socks over our hands and forearms – to protect us from the plant fuzz that scratched like fiberglass – wielding little jackknives.”

Nutritional Information
High in Vitamins K and C, as well as fiber.

Buying Guide
Look for firm, springy pods, free of bruises and dark spots, and no more than four inches long.

While the stem and the area around it while brown quickly, the brighter and greener the ends are, the fresher those pods are.

Storage
Okra picked the same day may have prickly hairs still clinging to it, so handle with care.

Store pods on the counter for immediate use, or keep unwashed in a paper bag in the refrigerator for two to three days.

At a Glance: Cooking Tips

  • Pods can be eaten raw or cooked. In Creole and African cooking, its gummy quality is put to good use as a thickener in stews and soups.
  • Frying, roasting, grilling, or quick sautéing are all strategies to reduce the gelatinous texture. A classic Southern method is to fry frying sliced okra in a simple cornmeal coating.

Recipe: Grilled Okra With Spiced Yogurt, Peanuts, and Mint
This recipe from Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield is full of layered flavors and textures.

1 cup whole Greek yogurt
1 large garlic clove
1 lemon
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely smashed
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and coarsely smashed
1 teaspoon pepper flakes
Kosher salt
1 pound fresh okra
3 tablespoons olive or peanut oil, plus more for drizzling
½ cup roughly chopped dry-roasted peanuts
⅓ cup torn fresh mint

Submerge several 6-inch wooden skewers in water to soak. Preheat a grill.

Place yogurt in a medium bowl. Use a fine grater to grate garlic and lemon zest over yogurt. Halve lemon and squeeze one half into yogurt. Add cumin, coriander, red pepper flakes and season with salt and more lemon juice, if needed. Stir to combine and refrigerate until ready to use.

Thread a skewer through 4-6 okra pods just below caps. Thread a second skewer through the same pods, about ½ inch from the tapered tips, creating a secure plank of skewered pods. Repeat with remaining skewers and okra, leaving about 1 inch of bare skewer at each end.

Brush both sides of okra with oil and sprinkle with salt. Place okra skewers on hot grill and cook until okra begins to char, about 2 minutes. Flip and grill opposite side until charred, about 2 minutes more. Transfer grilled okra to a platter and discard skewers.

To serve, spread yogurt sauce over a serving platter or individual plates. Drizzle with oil and top with okra. Garnish with peanuts and mint.

Eat Good Food, Preserve the Season

Make Your Own Pickled Watermelon Rind

pickled watermelon rind

Pickled watermelon rind is an exceedingly thrifty item. Imagine food being so scarce that even a melon rind can’t be wasted. Imagine the South after the Civil War. Leave it to ingenious householders to make it delicious.

An old Southern favorite, watermelon rind pickles are perfect for serving alongside a burger or added to chicken or shrimp salads, and are delicious accompaniments to pork chops.

When selecting a watermelon, look for one that is symmetrical, heavy for its size, and does not have dents. Check the ground spot on the bottom too – if it’s creamy yellow, it is ripe and ready to eat.

Pickled Watermelon Rind

3 ½ pounds prepped watermelon rind from a 12 to 14-pound watermelon
¼ cup kosher salt
6 cups water
2 ½ cups red wine vinegar
1 ½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
½ teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
5 cloves
3 to 5 dried red chilies
1-inch cinnamon stick

Break the watermelon down into slices. First cut the melon in half, and cut the resulting chunk into 1-inch slices.

Using a sharp knife, slice the peel away from the flesh. (Save the flesh to eat.) Finally, use a vegetable peeler to remove the outermost dark green rind, and discard the peelings.

Cut each piece of the pale green inner rind into 1 ½ inch pieces and place in a large mixing bowl.

Make a brine of the salt and water, and pour over the rinds. Weight them with a plate, cover the bowl with a clean dish towel, and set aside overnight.

The next day, drain the rinds and rinse with water.

Combine the vinegar, sugar, and molasses in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil. Crush the spices in a mortar, and add them to the pan.

When the vinegar syrup boils, add the rinds to the pan, cover, and cook gently for 10 minutes, turning them over regularly, until the rinds are translucent.

Lift out the rinds with a slotted spoon, and pack them into four prepared pint jars, leaving a generous ½ inch headspace.

Bring the syrup back to a boil and pour it over the rinds to cover, leaving ½ inch headspace.

Wipe the rims, seal the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Wait a week or two before eating.

Adapted from Kevin West’s Saving the Season.

Learn more about what’s in season in summer.

Eat Good Food, Preserve the Season

Make Your Own Pickled Okra

pickled okra

Pickled okra saves the summer’s tastes for months to come with the happy additions of garlic, dill, and hot red peppers.

The pickles are crisp, tasty accompaniments to burgers or barbecue, and also wonderful served as part of an appetizer or charcuterie platter.

Look for firm, springy pods, free of bruises and dark spots, and no more than three inches long.

Pickled Okra

3 pounds (2 ½ to 3 inch) okra pods
3 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
⅓ cup canning-and-pickling salt
2 teaspoons dill seeds
5 garlic cloves, peeled
3 small fresh hot red peppers, halved (optional)

Sterilize five pint jars and prepare lids.

While jars are boiling, wash okra and trim stems, leaving caps intact. Combine vinegar, salt, dill seeds, and 3 cups water in large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil.

Place 1 garlic clove and, if desired, 1 hot pepper half in each hot jar. Pack okra pods tightly in jars, placing some stem end down and some stem end up and leaving ½ inch headspace.

Cover okra with hot pickling liquid, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.

Seal and process jars for 10 minutes.

Remove jars from water, and let stand, undisturbed, at room temperature 24 hours.

To check seals, remove the bands, and press down on the center of each lid. If the lid does not move, the jar is sealed. If the lid depresses and pops up again, the jar is not sealed.

Store properly sealed jars in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Refrigerate after opening.

Learn more about okra.

Meet the Makers

John T. Edge’s ‘Pot Likker Papers’

pot likker papers

The longer the greens stew with the meat, the richer the pot likker. When the meat and greens are scooped from the pan to be placed on the plates of the privileged, the fat and vitamins stay behind for the bowls of the poor. The bottom of the pan holds the best part of the meal.

Using this as a metaphor and a title, food journalist John T. Edge sketches a brief history of modern Southern culture through what was eaten and who cooked it in his new book, The Potlikker Papers.

The PotLikker Papers grew out of Edge’s 2002 masters dissertation, written during a career curve that found him abandoning the corporate world for an academic career that would earn him a James Beard Award for his writing and a position heading up the Southern Foodways Alliance project at the University of Mississippi.

“For me, this book was an attempt to boil down, distill down 60 years of Southern history and offer voice to all those cooks who express themselves through a kind of subversive creativity in the kitchen and the fields and at tables,” Edge told NPR in a recent interview.

He begins with the Civil Rights movement, one that centered in part on the right to sit at a counter and eat, and one that was certainly fueled by home kitchens and underground restaurants.

“I initially thought I was going to write a book that was the post-Civil War South,” Edge told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “[But] I recognized along the way that I’m definitively disinterested in the Civil War, and that the South I embrace, love and am also angry with begins to take shape as the Civil Rights movement comes into focus.

“And if you think about one of the propulsive moments of the movement, you come to the Montgomery bus boycotts.”

And you come to Georgia Gilmore, an indefatigable mother of six who literally nourished the movement from her own kitchen.

You come to the Black Panthers, for whom feeding the masses was a radical act. You come to the hippies who founded The Farm in Tennessee in order to grow food unfettered by corporate interests and you come to Jimmy Carter’s down-home appeal and Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun celebrity and Craig Claiborne’s refined Frenchified approach.

And eventually you come to the return of the real food of the real people of the real history of the South — fueled by bourbon and brisket.

“Instead of a myth-veiled cultural monolith, I see the South as an album of snapshots,” Edge writes in the book’s introduction. “I hear the region like it’s a jukebox of 45s. The South I sample is a menu of dishes. Shaped by a four-century-long call-and-response between masters and enslaved peoples, a back-and-forth between Native Americans and immigrants, the region I know, the place that comes to life in The Potlikker Papers, rejects easy encapsulation.”

The result is a fascinating collection of essays that travels widely, introducing us to Colonel Sanders’ foul mouth (and his loathing of his chicken once the franchise was sold), and the innovative cookbook author Edna Lewis before taking us all the way to the present day with South Carolina celebrity restaurateur Sean Brock (newly famous for becoming sober).

What results is a singular story of women, even when Edge focuses on men. Whether a white baby is placed on a black breast — as with an opening anecdote about a mother able to buy a farm by working as a wet nurse — to the tale of Gordonsville, VA, the “chicken-leg center of the universe,” where, Edge writes, “black women supported their families and ‘built houses out of chicken legs'” by making portable meals that could be passed in through car windows in an ad hoc variation on fast food.

Today, a Southern eater is just as likely to enjoy an el pastor taco or a bowl of pho as a plate of meat and greens. “What was once a region of black and white, locked in a struggle for power, has become a society of many hues and many hometowns,” Edge writes, looking on as his teenaged son’s generation emerges.

“Given time to reconcile the mistakes my generation made with the beauty we forged amid adversity, his generation might challenge the region of our birth to own up to its promise.”

That’s a prediction we’re glad to wait for, slowly supping the good stuff from the bottom of the pan.