by Zoë Abram
Okra is a conversation starter. It often provokes strong reactions from people. Common complaints from people who aren’t enthusiastic about okra are usually about texture. Gooey? Slimy? The pro-okra camp (of which I am a part) is full of ideas about how to enjoy the pods best. Make it fried! Stewed! Pickled! In gumbo!
Okra is in the mallow family. Looking at it‘s beautiful yellow and maroon flowers, you can see the resemblance to hibiscus and hollyhock. It is also related to cotton. Okra does well in Maryland; it does well in hot, dry summers. We had some trouble with damping off when we tried growing okra seedlings for transplant … the stems would rot right at the soil line and the plants would flop over. The small plants were too damp in the potting soil we used. On the advice of someone I’ve worked for before, we tried direct seeding a row. We’ve been comparing it to the row we planted with our last try seedlings (which we grew successfully after we changed to a different potting mix that dries out more evenly). The direct seeded plants grew much faster and bushed out much more than the seedlings, but the seedlings started producing first. Now, we’re harvesting more from the bigger, bushier, direct seeded row. It’s been interesting to see how differently the rows develop!
The damping off seedlings weren’t our only okra worry: a few weeks ago, we saw a lot of green stink bugs on the okra. They like to suck on the buds, which can abort the flowers and prevent fruit from forming. It seems that the pests aren’t affecting yield too much though, as we’ve been getting pretty consistent harvests.
The pods grow so fast that we have to pick it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with other fast-maturing fruits like squash and cucumbers. Each harvest seems small – today 9 lbs, the biggest yet was 13 lbs. And the okra can defend itself! We grow a “spineless” variety, but the plants still leave the smallest scratches you don’t notice until the harvest is over.
The best reward is when members are so happy to see it as an option in the share. I learned how exciting locally grown okra can be to customers when I worked at a farmers market in Brooklyn and people would exclaim about how green it was compared to the browning, bruised okra available at the supermarket. With our okra too, people notice how the ends snap off, a sign of freshness.
Okra is used as a thickening agent in many cuisines – one of our members shared with us the way her family prepared okra in Sudan: they dry it and create a powder to use like corn starch or potato starch to thicken soups and stews. If you are looking for ideas to cook okra, find a recipe for a chicken or shrimp gumbo. The same gooeyness people complain about serves as the thickening agent that gives gumbo it’s unique texture. If you’re looking for a treat, or for a use for okra that can’t possibly be “slimy,” try the crowd-pleasing recipe of frying sliced pods in corn meal batter. My personal favorite is pickled okra: I love how the brine sneaks inside the pods and you get a burst of it when you bite into the okra. How do you prepare your okra?