Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.
They're beautiful, they're rich with history, and...they're slimy. For many, memories of okra begin and end with their signature mucilage, caused by the sugars and proteins inside the plant that are activated by heat. (Don't worry: we'll be discussing the best ways to avoid okra's goo. Unless it's gooeyness you're after, of course.)
Okra originated in Africa and South Asia, although it can be found almost anywhere with a warm, temperate climate. It's used in cuisine from the Middle East to India, and during the slave trade it was brought to the American South, where it became an important part of the Creole and Cajun cooking traditions (most famously as a thickener in gumbo). Okra also takes well to breading and frying, and, in the longer term, to pickling. But don't cook them in aluminum or cast iron -- the surfaces react with the okra to discolor it black.
1. Seed Pods: It's easy to see that okra is related to hibiscus when you see its flowers -- their wide petals with a burst of color at the center look just like the tropical plant. The part of okra that we eat is the flower's seed pod; after blooming for just one day, the flower wilts and leaves behind a pod that grows quickly in length. Okra should be harvested when still young, at a maximum length of 6 inches. After that they start to become tough-skinned, with too much mucilage inside for use as anything but a thickener.
2. Different Strokes: The way to keep okra from becoming slimy is to cut it as little as possible. If frying it whole, trim the top but leave just enough stem to seal in the insides of the okra; if cutting open, do so at the last possible minute. (Of course, although we're making a big to-do about okra's mucilage, many people don't mind it!)
3. All-Star Gumbo: For use as a thickener in an authentic Cajun gumbo, cut okra pods in small pieces in order to maximize their surface area for thickening. Aren't their star shapes so beautiful?
4. Purple Okra: Keep an eye out at your local farmer's market for purple okra. Like purple green beans, they lose their color and turn dark green after cooking, but they lend a gorgeous pink hue to the vinegar of pickled okra, and their insides are said to be slightly less mucilaginous.