Okra- the Cinderella of the Vegetable World
Summer time is challenge time, with oppressive heat, humidity, and heavy air taking their toll. While there are changes and new colors in the vegetable boxes, somehow the burden of the summer heat dampens my excitement and happiness. And yet, this is the time to welcome the amazing okra, the special guest of summer, who thrives on the scorching weather. This newsletter is dedicated to her.
The myth is that people of Ashkenazi origin can’t eat okra and do not appreciate it, but as a descendent of a German father who can eat okra for all three daily meals, I can vouch for the fallacy of this myth. At our house too, okra is very much loved. The girls would rather I chop up the raw pods so I can serve them “stars” to munch on. We adults prefer it cooked, roasted or stir-fried.
Okra began its domesticated path in the world over 1,000 years ago in tropical Africa, in the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Sudan area, where it can still be found growing wild today. From there it crossed the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and took off to North Africa, the Middle East and India. It is not clear how this journey occurred, and there are very mysterious periods within okra history, but it became an officially loved food in all those countries. Okra arrived in Europe, compliments of the Muslim Moors in the 12th century. It made its debut in the new continent, America, by two sources: African slaves brought to work in the colonial colonies carried okra to Brazil and South America, and simultaneously French settlers, who knew it from Europe, brought it to Louisiana. Over the past decades it became a vaunted vegetable in the Asian kitchen, specifically the Japanese. So one does not have to be Egyptian or Greek to value this vegetable.
The local okra variety indigenous to Israel has small – even tiny – pods. Traditionally you’ll be told to steer clear of a pod larger than a pinky, as this is a sign of an okra which is over-mature and too fibrous. On the contrary, the green and red okra variety that Chubeza grows is the Thai okra: longer, bigger and a little less slimy. Don’t be put off by the size – it’s simply a different cousin, but not any less amazing than other family members. If I dare say so myself, in many recipes it’s even better!
Okra is unique in its genealogy. It is a cousin of the chubeza–the mallow–and belongs as well to the Malvaceae family, which includes cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock. Not many members of the family are edible, but they are rather beautiful, with large, lush flowers. This is what the okra flower looks like (the glamorous star of the current Chubeza calendar page):
But despite its beauty and my fathers’ deep affection for it, some people are repulsed by this vegetable. The reason generally cited is its “texture,” or in other words: “that slimy stuff that oozes out when it’s cooked.” That’s a pity, because that “slimy stuff” holds the okra in its Cinderella state, still in rags, waiting to be discovered for all its charms. There are many ways to reduce the slime, which I will get to soon, but let us first discover the charms of Cinderella.
One of the most amazing things about okra is that it can be used in a great variety of ways, some of which aren’t fully utilized today. We usually cook, roast or fry the young pods (3-5 days old), which is, of course, great. They are rich in vitamins K, A and C, plus folic acid, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The dietary fibers aid in preventing constipation and in stabilizing blood sugar levels by slowing down the process of sugar absorption in the digestive system. Okra also absorbs cholesterol and removes stomach acids containing the toxins that did not pass through the liver’s filtering system. Its dietary fibers are unique in that they feed the good intestinal flora. As it matures, okra’s fibers grow more and more rigid (which anyone who ever tried to chew a mature pod can attest to) and hold an unfulfilled potential as raw material for the rope and paper industry.
Yet its assets are not only in the pod fibers, but also in its little seeds: the oil produced from them is quite healthy and unsaturated, with characteristics resembling the lauded olive oil. The tiny seeds contain vegetal protein, like soybeans, and they are rich in tryptophan and contain amino acids- a very important combination for vegetarians. Ground okra seeds were used in the past (and in some places, in the present) as caffeine-free substitutes for coffee, like the chicory root.
So what about that “slime”? It, too, can be efficiently used to thicken soups and other dishes (sometimes okra pods are dried and ground to be used for thickening, similar to gelatin) and some say it can be beneficial to heal wounds and soothe burns, like the gel inside the aloe vera plant.
But if you still would like to lower the slime level in cooking, there are several things you can do:
– Leave the pod whole (cut off the stem, but do not open the pod)
– Prepare quickly and easily by stir frying or frying, not by a long cooking with liquids.
– Combine with acidic foods: tomatoes, lemon juice or vinegar.
Another surprising and attractive use for okra is in arts and crafts. It can be used to make interesting dragons, or cut in its width to make delicate star-shaped stampers. Here are some pictures:
Wishing us a quiet and peaceful week of summertime, with no bad news and livin’ that’s easy…
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Maya and the entire Chubeza team
What’s in this Week’s Boxes?
Monday: Butternut squash, lettuce, parsley, tomatoes, slice of pumpkin, okra/Hilda pole beans/Thai beans, eggplant/ corn, cucumbers. Small boxes only: red bell peppers, New Zealand spinach
Large boxes, in addition: Scallions/garlic chives, cherry tomatoes, onions, zucchini, mint/thyme
Wednesday: parsley, lettuce/kale, cucumbers, slice of pumpkin, tomatoes, leek/scallions, butternut squash, red bell peppers, zucchini, small boxes only: New Zealand spinach, small boxes only: thyme/mint
Large boxes, in addition: onions, cherry tomatoes, okra/yard long beans/green beans, sage/chive, eggplants/corn
And there’s more! You can add to your basket a wide, delectable range of additional products from fine small producers: flour, fruits, honey, dates, almonds, crackers, probiotic foods, dried fruits and leathers, olive oil, bakery products, pomegranate juice and goat dairy too! You can learn more about each producer on the Chubeza website. On our order system there’s a detailed listing of the products and their cost, you can make an order online now!
Okra Recipes (I tried to find easy recipes, low on slime)
A special, spicy idea: Okra Croutons (from a great cookbook that Nati gave me: Vegetarian Soul Food by Angela S. Madris)
Ingredients: 1 kilogram okra, sliced thinly 1 c. corn flour 1 t. salt ½ t. ground cumin ¼ t. cayenne pepper
Preparation: Preheat oven to 190 degrees C. Rinse okra in a colander, drain and dry. In a plastic bag, mix okra with cornflower, ½ t. salt, cumin and pepper. Tie bag and shake well. Grease a baking pan with olive oil, spread okra in a uniform layer across the pan, and sprinkle olive oil over okra. Bake for 10 minutes. Mix okra and sprinkle it with a bit more olive oil. Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until okra becomes golden brown and crisp. Sprinkle with remaining ½ t. salt.
Fried Okra, East-African Style (from the same excellent book as above)
Ingredients: 3 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 T. garlic powder 2 t. curry powder 1 t. freshly-ground black pepper 12 small-to-medium okra pods, with sharp edges cut, but not the stems 1 c. vegetable oil 1 t. salt
Preparation In a small mixing bowl, combine lemon juice, garlic powder, turmeric, curry powder and pepper. Score okra lengthwise with a deep slit, so that it is in two parts, connected by the stem. Cover the okra well, inside and out, with spice mixture. Attach both halves to each other. Heat oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high flame until hot but not smoking. Fry okra for 3-4 minutes or until it browns. Drain okra on a plate covered with paper towel to absorb the oil. Scatter with salt.
Genevieve and Barry, okra lovers, sent me these two recipes:
Okra in Tomato Sauce
Ingredients: ½ kg okra 1 onion, sliced Olive oil 2 cloves garlic ½ kg tomatoes, chopped Salt and pepper Juice of ½ lemon 1 teaspoon sugar A small bunch parsley or cilantro, chopped
Trim off the stems of the okra and rinse well. Fry the onion in the oil until golden. Add the garlic and fry until the aroma rises. Add the okra and sauté gently for about 5 minutes, turning over the pods. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, lemon, and sugar and simmer 15-20 minutes, or until the okra is tender and the sauce reduced. Stir in the parsley or kusbara and cook a minute more. It’s delicious cold or hot.
Sweet and Sour Okra
Ingredients: ½ kg okra Olive oil ½-1 tablespoon sugar Salt and pepper Juice of 1 small lemon [Optional: 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped, and 1½-2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds]
Trim off the stems of the okra and rinse well. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Add the okra and sauté gently for about 5 minutes, turning each pod over. Add sugar, salt and pepper, the lemon juice, and just enough water to cover the okra. Simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the okra is tender and the liquid has reduced. Raise the heat if necessary to reduce the liquid at the end. [Optional: heat the garlic and coriander in oil in a small pan, stirring, for a minute or two, until the garlic just begins to color. Stir this in with the okra and cook a few minutes more before serving]
And one more recipe: