When Liz Williams was little, there was one vegetable her otherwise produce-loving mother couldn’t stand: okra. "She called it slimy and disgusting," Williams says. "So I just assumed she was right."
But her Louisiana-born father loved the veggie. For a family picnic outing, he brought along a jar of pickled okra. Snacking on the crunchy spears, 7-year-old Williams just about finished the jar. "What is this?" she asked. When she heard "okra," she was shocked and thrilled. "I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mom she was wrong about okra," Williams laughs.
From then on, she badgered her mom to make more. Persistence paid off. "What mom would turn down a child asking to eat vegetables?" Williams says.
Her mom pickled it, stewed it with tomatoes, and put it in gumbo and giardiniera (a spicy, pickled condiment or side dish).
After a while, all that okra cooking won her mom over. "She actually embraced it and grew to like it herself," says Williams, who still prepares her mom’s giardiniera. "But," she confides, "with extra okra!"
Okra's Health Benefits
Okra is part of the mallow family, which includes cotton, the kola nut, and the durian fruit. The edible pods of the okra plant contain natural chemicals that mix to make mucilage, a sticky substance that becomes gooier when heated.
Okra's sliminess makes it hard for some people to love, but it’s also what makes it so good for you. A soluble fiber much like the soluble fiber in oatmeal, okra’s mucilage helps lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent constipation.
It’s low in calories, too -- only 25 per half cup, cooked -- and rich in vitamins C and K and folates.
How to Cook Okra
Southern chefs have cooked okra for generations and know some tricks to minimize the veggie’s gumminess and maximize its more appealing traits: color, crunch, and flavor.
Adding a green tomato to an okra stew pot is a slime-busting technique Southern cooks swear by. So is taking care not to overcook.
Because exposure to heat makes the okra oozier, sautéing (frying quickly over high heat) and pickling (which doesn’t require cooking the vegetable) help avoid that problem.
Choose small, young, very fresh okra rather than older pods longer than 3 inches. Younger pods cook more quickly. Lightly rub the fuzz from the pods with a clean towel, quickly rinse, and pat completely dry before slicing.
For a simple, flavorful, okra-tomato sauté, try this recipe from chef Susan Spicer, of Bayona and Mondo restaurants in New Orleans:
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a wide sauté pan until the oil shimmers.
- Add 1 pound small okra pods sliced about 1/2-inch thick.
- Toss and stir over medium-high heat until the okra takes on a bright green color, about 5 minutes.
- Add 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, a diced onion, and a minced garlic clove.
- Stir and cook 3 minutes more.
- Season with a little salt and pepper. Add 2 cups fresh chopped or canned tomatoes.
- Simmer 10 minutes, then serve.
For a quick, easy, okra side dish, skewer 12 to 15 fresh, small okra pods onto two skewers to make a ladder-like assembly that will lie flat on the grill without slipping between the grates. Brush your "ladder" with olive oil, and grill 2 minutes on each side.
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