Okra is fuzzy, slimy...and delicious. In the South, deep-fried okra can be found in cafeterias and buffets across the region. Some people in the Northeast, however, may be less familiar with the odd little vegetable. For many, the prospect of facing its ooze might be, frankly, scary.
The okra season is just wrapping up in the New York area, so the time to enjoy the strange vegetable—or try it for the first time—is now. WNYC’s Amy Eddings discusses okra with Southern food expert Matt Lee, who dispels some of the slimy myths around this vegetable.
Eddings admits that she’s never eaten okra, and Lee recommends trying it raw. “It’s a mild flavor, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he explains. In particular, Lee, who, along with his brother, Ted, is the author of the cookbook "Simply Fresh Southern," notes that it can be a nice addition to salads, and when sliced as a cross-section, okra presents a pretty star shape.
Erica Wides, of chefsmartypants.com and the radio show “Why We Cook,” recommends roasting it whole, or sautéing it quickly. “Or if you cook it with anything acidic, the acid dissolves the slime, so I think that’s why it’s traditional to cook it with tomatoes,” she says. Pickled okra is also a Southern favorite and keeps the vegetable crisp. Wides recommends picking out smaller okra pods, as the larger ones can become woody.
Lee notes that the African plant was introduced to America in the Southeast through the slave trade. “The plant is a mallow, it’s a soft, flowering plant,” adds Lee. “It’s actually related to cotton and cocoa. When you see it flowering, you recognize that it’s also related to hibiscus.” He credits that relation with giving okra a gentle floral taste.
While okra is best adapted to grow in warm, tropical climates, Lee says that he’s grown it in upstate New York, south of Albany, with success. It’s a particularly good household garden plant because, like ground cherries, it produces fruit continually throughout the season.
The Lee Brothers' recipe below for an easy okra salad is just one more reason to get to know — or to rediscover — weird, lovable okra.
Cucumber, Tomato and Okra Salad
By Matt Lee and Ted Lee
from Simple, Fresh, Southern
Time: 10 minutes preparation; 10 minutes cooking
- 8 ounces fresh okra, trimmed, and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rounds (about 2 cups)
- 3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 pound vine-ripened tomatoes (about 3 tomatoes)
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large seedless cucumber (1 pound), peeled, trimmed, and cut into large matchsticks (See Cucumber Notes, below)
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions (white and green parts)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1. Scatter the okra in a single layer in a dry 12-inch skillet or large sauté pan. Cook over medium-high heat, moving the pieces around the pan frequently, until the okra is just browning around the edges, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a small bowl, and sprinkle the salt over the okra. Reserve.
2. Set a strainer over a medium bowl. Core the tomatoes, cut them in half widthwise, and using your pinkie finger, tease the seeds out of the cavities, letting them drop into the strainer. Tap the rim of the strainer against your palm for 30 seconds, until most of the flavorful gel clinging to the seeds dissolves and drips into the bowl. Discard the seeds. Chop the tomatoes.
3. Add the mustard, vinegar, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt to the tomato water, and whisk until the mustard is completely incorporated into the liquid. Add the olive oil in a thin stream, whisking constantly until the ingredients are thoroughly emulsified in a dressing of uniform, thick consistency.
4. In a large bowl, toss the cucumber with the tomatoes, green onions, and black pepper until thoroughly combined. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss until they’re evenly coated. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Divide the salad evenly among four bowls and sprinkle a handful of the salted okra over each portion.
The Lee Brothers suggest garnishing with high-quality slab bacon as a smoky option.