Ode to Okra

Virginia Willis-fresh okra
All photos courtesy of Virginia Willis.

Editor’s note: Last summer, Virginia Willis wrote a series of blog posts for us on the iconic summer foods of the South. The series was so tasty that we’ve decided to share some of the posts again. There’s still time to enjoy these ingredients before summer turns into fall.

by Virginia Willis

In this guest blog series for the SFA, I examine iconic Southern foods that absolutely define summer. I’ve been sharing a bit of history and a recipe or two these past weeks that I hoped you have enjoyed. We kicked off the series with homemade ice cream, I went crazy for corn, I made clear my views on the tomato sandwich, and then I spilled the beans and peas. Last week, I comforted a certain number of folks with the lusciousness of a Georgia peach. Next week is an examination of the proliferation of summer squash, and I will finish up right before Labor Day with a low-and-slow barbecued Boston butt.

This week, it’s all about okra.

Ok, I know, I know. Stop. You either love okra or you absolutely hate it, and you’ve already decided to click away. Stay. Please, please stay. I’ve got this, really, I do. Okra is the new asparagus. Seriously. I’m certain of it.

I’m an official okra missionary. I am here to convert—and I can even help you past the slime. Coincidentally, I’ve recently written an entire book about okra for The University of North Carolina Press series called Savor the South that will be out in the spring of 2014. Other ingredients that are or will be featured in the series include tomatoes, buttermilk, pecans, and sweet potatoes. The deal is, I asked for this crazy, argumentative topic. I chose okra over bourbon! And, through this blog post for SFA you have a sneak peak at what I’ve learned becoming one with okra.

This is what I know: Okra is a controversial vegetable. It is as much a part of Southern cuisine as collard greens and fried chicken. But in the Southern kitchen, it is far more controversial. Folks love okra or they hate it. No one—veritably no one—is in the middle.

VA Willis-Grilled Okra

I also know this: Okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of all shapes and forms. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, broiled, pickled, whole, sliced, and julienned. I love it raw in a salad. You name it, okra lovers love okra. Those who hate it think it’s slimy, gooey, and gummy. Some even go as far to call it “mucilaginous ick.”

In my opinion, they haven’t met the right okra.

According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, African slaves brought okra across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trading era. Little is known about the early history and distribution of okra, but it is thought to have originated in equatorial Africa. It eventually made its way into Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and India before its journey across the Atlantic to the New World.

Okra is a main component in gumbo. There are two main considerations for the etymology of the word “gumbo.” The first suggest that in Bantu, the language family of Southern Africa, which includes Swahili, okra is called ngumbo, and this is where gumbo originates. The second is that “gumbo” is believed to be a corruption of the Portuguese corruption, quingombo, or the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola.

Okra is not, however, solely found in the American South or in Africa. The ancient routes by which okra was taken from central Africa to Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean and to India is not certain, but we do know that okra is found in abundance in three major areas today—East Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. It is also found in pockets in the Caribbean, as well as in South America.

One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow.

There are actually 50 species of wild and cultivated okra around the world. According to the USDA, okra grows best in zones 4a through 11 in the United States. One acre of okra usually produces 200 to 250 bushels of okra, or approximately 600 to 750 pounds. That is a lot of gumbo! Depending on the variety, the plant will tower up to 12 feet in the Southern garden. Clemson Spineless is the favorite hybrid of Southern gardeners, but many heirloom varieties are reemerging from the garden shed, including Star of David, a stumpy star-shaped pod; Hill Country Red, a vivid velvety red okra from Texas; and Perkins Mammoth Long Pod, an okra varietal that produces pods up to 16 inches in length – and still tastes good!

On that note, most okra doesn’t taste good when it’s that long; it becomes tough and woody. In general, look for young, small pods no longer than 4-inches in length, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger! At the market, buy okra that is firm, unblemished, and brightly colored. Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green, almost white, especially at local farmer’s markets.  Make sure to avoid limp, bruised, blemished, and moldy pods.

To get you started, here are my top 5 tips to get you past the slime, followed by a very unorthodox grilled gumbo that keeps the both the slime—and time—factor to a minimum.

Top Five Slime Busting Tips:

  1. Choose small pods.
  2. Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.
  3. Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.
  4. Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar, or wine when cooking.
  5. Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Note: My partner and I are proud members of a group of Southern Foodways Alliance financial supporters called The Order of the Okra. You can e-mail the SFA staff if you’d like more information about this group.

 VA Willis-shrimp and okra for gumbo

Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo”

Serves 6

Leave the soup pot in the cupboard! Succulent shrimp and spicy Andouille sausage team up with sweet onion, tomatoes, and okra for a delicious dish that tastes like gumbo but doesn’t take hours to cook. This dish is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

1 pound large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined

12 ounces fully cooked Andouille sausage, halved lengthwise

1 pint grape tomatoes

12 ounces finger-size okra, stems trimmed

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, sliced into 1/4-inch rings

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips

1 poblano or green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into quarters

¼ cup pure olive oil

2 teaspoons Creole or Cajun seasoning, plus more to taste

¼ cup ketchup, warmed

4 green onions, white and pale green parts only, chopped

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Hot cooked rice, for serving

Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine the shrimp, sausage, tomatoes, okra, onion, and bell peppers in a large bowl. Add the oil and Creole seasoning, and toss to coat the ingredients. Thread the shrimp, tomatoes, okra, and pepper onto separate skewers. (The onions can go directly on the grill.) Or, use a grilling basket instead of skewers for the vegetables.

Place the vegetables on the hottest part of the grill. Arrange the sausage over slightly cooler heat and the shrimp at the edges of the grill. Cook, turning once or twice, until the shrimp is opaque, the sausage is heated through, and the vegetables are tender and slightly charred, 8 to 10 minutes (the shrimp will take less time to cook). Slice the sausage, onion, and bell peppers into bite-size pieces, then transfer them, along with the other ingredients, to a large bowl.

Toss the meat and vegetable mixture with the warmed ketchup and green onions. Cover the mixture tightly with plastic wrap and let the vegetables steam and wilt slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and Creole seasoning to your liking. Ladle over cooked rice in warmed serving bowls. Serve immediately.