Okra is the stepchild that has been snubbed for being slimy or needing to be fried to death to make it edible. In reality it is the comeback kid – gaining popularity among gardeners and farmers, chefs and food enthusiasts, health professionals, and heirloom enthusiasts.
Gardeners and farmers love it because it is easy to grow, a prolific producer, and exceptionally drought tolerant. Heirloom varieties that don’t grow too tall to harvest (4-6 feet and/or are open branched make harvesting easier. It is a plant with stature and beauty –large fan-shaped leaves and showy yellow blossoms. A row of okra can shade plants in the summer that may enjoy a break from the intense sun.
Chefs and food enthusiasts love okra because of the diverse colors, rich flavor, crisp texture, and use in a variety of dishes. Soups, stews, salads, creole, gumbo, casseroles, grilled, pickled, or fried are popular ways of utilizing okra in Southern dishes. Tomatoes, shellfish, and corn are popular foods to blend with okra.
Nutritionists and health professionals are coming to appreciate okra as a superfood. It helps lower blood sugar, reduces cholesterol, and prevents colorectal cancer. It is a good source of Vitamins B, C, and K, lutein, magnesium, folic acid, calcium, and potassium. Okra is low in calories and high in fiber helping digestion, reducing cravings, and promoting better glycemic control.
Okra has a rich history, and we favor heirloom varieties. An heirloom, according to Webster’s, is: “A valued family possession handed on from generation to generation.” It originated in Ethiopia and spread to West Africa, and thus, it is an important contribution to Southern cuisine from African Americans. It spread from Africa to Brazil and Latin America including the Caribbean and later to the American colonies. Heirlooms are bred true to type from year to year. The Kerr Center in Oklahoma tested a number of varieties, and we have selected some of the top performers:
“Burmese” growing 36 inches high with a high yield
“Evertender” 38 inches high with a very high yield and pods that are tender even when picked larger
“Bowling Red” 30 inches high with a high yield and red-tinged pod making it an attractive landscape plant
“Jade” 32 inches high and bright green leaves producing a very high yield
“Fife Creek Cowhorn” 33 inches high, pods are fat but tender and especially sweet
While heirlooms may be less uniform than hybrids, we like them for a number of reasons. They were passed down through the family because they taste good; they haven’t had the nutrition bred out of them to make them more marketable regarding appearance, shipping long distances, and longevity on the grocery shelf; long harvest season; and the lore about these family jewels connects us to the food we eat.
Lee’s okra salad was the prettiest (in my humble opinion) dish on a long table at last Sunday’s Newlin reunion. Check it out on the recipe page. It was colorful and exuded just-harvested freshness, tasted delicious and no gooey okra. You can prepare it for your next family gathering and share the news about the Southern heritage of our esteemed okra. -Larry