Okra - A Versatile Southern Vegetable
photo by Allison Mignery, with permission.
Allison Mignery, Guest Writer
Physical Activity & Nutrition Supervisor
Mecklenburg County Health Department
The majority of okra in the United States is grown and eaten in the Southeast. The okra plant is a tall-growing, warm-season, annual vegetable with African origins, closely related to both cotton and hibiscus. Completely separate from the pods and the leaves, okra produces beautiful yellow flowers that open in the morning and close again at night. During the high-sun of summer, okra will produce pods frequently and can easily be harvested every other day. Regular picking increases yield. Mature pods left on the plant will reduce flowering and fruit set.
When harvesting okra look for pods that aren't too small nor too big. Three to four inches is the right size for most varieties of okra. Pick out bright green okra, not dull green. Okra plants and pods often have numerous small spines that can irritate skin, so always pick okra wearing a long-sleeved shirt and gloves. To remove the small spines, be sure to thoroughly wash okra before using. As okra is highly perishable, store in the refrigerator for up to three days after harvesting.
One added benefit of the okra plant is the versatility of its uses. Okra leaves may also be cooked in a similar way to the greens of beets or dandelions or may be eaten raw in salads. Whole, fresh okra pods can make excellent pickles. Okra can be served raw, marinated in salads or cooked on its own, and goes well with tomatoes, onions, corn, peppers and eggplant.
When cut, okra releases a sticky, slippery substance with thickening properties often used in soups and stews. Gumbos, Brunswick stew and French-fried okra are some well-known dishes which frequently use okra. Many people prefer to eat okra fried or breaded as this reduces its slipperiness. If you are watching your fat intake, but still love the taste of fried okra, try “frying” okra in the oven with a cornmeal and egg mixture. This method involves less work (no oil or fryers needed), and you can make one big batch all at once. But most importantly, it tastes just as great as traditional fried okra. See the recipe for Oven Baked Okra below.
Besides being a great-tasting vegetable, okra is also a good source of Vitamin C, B6, zinc, folic acid and dietary fiber. It is very low in calories, about 30 calories per 8 pods. To retain most of okra’s nutrients, it should be cooked as little as possible. Eating okra is recommended for pregnant woman since it is rich in folic acid which is essential in the neural tube formation of the fetus during 4-12 weeks of gestation period in the mother's womb.
Hearty Creole Okra and Tomatoes
Try this recipe which incorporates raw okra and other vegetables that can be grown in your summer garden.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 ears fresh corn, shucked and kernels scraped from cob
2 pounds fresh okra, cut into ½-inch slices
10 Roma tomatoes, broken up
½ pound andouille sausage, diced
½ teaspoon Creole seasoning, or to taste
Sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste
In a large pot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Cook and stir celery and onions until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in corn kernels and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in okra, tomatoes, andouille sausage and Creole seasoning. Cover and cook over medium heat until okra has lost all of its slippery texture, at least 45 minutes. Season with sea salt, black pepper, and if necessary, more Creole seasoning. Cook uncovered to reduce liquid, about 10 minutes.
Nutritional Information per serving: Calories 180; Total Fat 10.4g; Cholesterol 16 mg.
Oven Baked Okra
Allison Mignery is a Registered Dietitian nationally and a Licensed Dietitian in North Carolina. Allison is employed with the Mecklenburg County Health Department’s Health Promotion Team in Charlotte, NC, where she works closely with Mecklenburg County’s Park and Recreation Department and Cooperative Extension to help build and sustain community gardens in the area. Allison’s series To Your Health shares recipes and articles focused on good health.