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Okra

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Long popular in the South, okra is becoming increasingly common in supermarkets and greengrocers all over the country. This small green pod is best known as a key ingredient in the thick piquant soup called gumbo (a word derived from the word gombo, which in West African dialect means okra). There is some question as to who actually introduced the vegetable here--West African slaves or the French colonists of Louisiana--but the plant (which is related to cotton) probably originated in Ethiopia and spread to North Africa and the Middle East before reaching the American colonies. The name okra itself is of African origin, though in other parts of the world where the vegetable is popular--the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East, India, Africa--it is still referred to as gumbo, among other regional names.

Okra's flavor and texture are unique. Its taste falls somewhere between that of eggplant and asparagus, and, not surprisingly, it marries well with other vegetables, particularly tomatoes, peppers, and corn. Cooked sliced okra exudes a sticky juice that is a combination of complex-sounding chemical substances, such as acetylated acidic polysaccharide and galaturonic acid. This juice will thicken any liquid to which it is added, a characteristic that helps to explain okra's long-standing use in soups and stews. Not everyone finds this mucilaginous texture pleasing, but cooking the vegetable quickly will reduce the gumminess, allowing okra to be enjoyed on its own as an interesting and nutritious side dish.

This unusual vegetable has a lot to offer nutritionally. It's a good source of Vitamin C, folate (folic acid) and other B vitamins, as well as magnesium, potassium, and manganese. Okra is high in dietary fiber, supplying 4 grams per 1 cup cooked.

Okra is marketed in processed form as well as fresh: About half of the domestic crop is frozen, and smaller amounts are canned or pickled. Frozen okra makes an acceptable substitute for fresh when used in soups and stews, but lacks the raw vegetable's crispness when served alone.

Varieties

You can find okra in varying shades of green or white and in chunky or slender shapes, with either a ribbed or smooth surface. Varieties with green, ribbed pods are the most common.

Availability

Okra is grown in warm climates--Florida, Georgia, and Texas are the leading producers--and is available all year, with supplies peaking in the summer months.

Shopping

Small, young pods--no more than about 3" long--are the most tender; as the vegetable matures, it becomes fibrous and tough. Choose pods that are clean and fresh (overmature ones will look dull and dry), and that snap crisply when broken in half; avoid okra pods that are hard, brownish, or blackened.

Storage

Don't wash okra until just before you cook it; moisture will cause the pods to become slimy. Store untrimmed, uncut okra in a paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for no longer than three or four days.

Preparation

Wash the okra; if the pods are very fuzzy, rub them in a kitchen towel or with a vegetable brush to remove some of the "fur."

If you are cooking whole okra pods, trim just the barest slice from the stem end and tip, without piercing the internal capsule; prepared this way, the juices won't be released and the okra won't become gummy. When you are cutting okra into slices, however, you can trim the stem end more deeply.

In general, when okra is to be served separately as a vegetable side dish, cook the whole pods rapidly--until crisp-tender or just tender--to minimize the thickening juices. The same principle applies when you are adding okra to any cooked dish in which you want to retain its crisp, fresh quality: Add the vegetable during the last 10 minutes of cooking time. On the other hand, when okra is to be used in a soup, stew, or casserole that requires long cooking, it should be cut up and allowed to exude its juices.

Do not cook okra in a cast iron or aluminum pot, or the vegetable will darken. The discoloration is harmless, but makes the okra look rather unappetizing.

Blanching: You can blanch okra you intend to serve cold in a salad, or before stir-frying. Drop whole okra pods in a large pot of boiling water. If serving okra cold, cool it in a bowl of ice water. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Boiling: Okra can be boiled when you want to serve it simply, with a seasoning or sauce. Cook whole okra pods in about 1" of boiling water; boil just until crisp-tender. Cooking time: five to 10 minutes.

Microwaving: Place a pound of whole okra, rinsed but not dried, in a covered microwaveable dish. Cooking time: six minutes.

Sauteing: First, saute some onions and garlic in a little vegetable oil, then add whole or sliced okra and saute. Cooking time: three to five minutes.

Steaming: Brief steaming keeps okra very crisp. Place whole pods in a vegetable steamer and cook over boiling water. Cooking time: three to six minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Okra/1 cup cooked

Calories
51
Total Fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
4
3
Carbohydrate (g)
12
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
8
Thiamin (mg)
0.2
Vitamin B6 (mg)
0.3
Vitamin C (mg)
26
Folate (mcg)
73
Magnesium (mg)
91
Manganese (mg)
1.5
Potassium (mg)
515


Date Published: 4/21/2005
Date Reviewed: 4/21/2005


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