Okra is technically a fruit, not a vegetable. It originated in Africa and spread to the Middle East and Europe with traders. When African slaves were brought to the Americas in the treacherous Middle Passage, they hid the seeds of many of their native plants in their hair - among these hidden seeds were okra seeds. That's how okra came to the New World.
Okra has historically featured heavily in Southeastern cuisine in America, although it's available seasonally across the US. It is easy to grow; the fruit pods emerge after large yellow flowers with maroon centers die. The pods are usually harvested when they are three to five inches long, but if left on the plant, the pods can grow to over a foot in length.
Okra is very versatile and is used in a wide variety of recipes. In Africa and the Caribbean, it's used in soups and stews. In India, it's used in stews and curries, and served with rice. In the United States, particularly in the Southeast, it's breaded and deep-fried, and used in Cajun gumbos. It's also extremely good pickled and used in Bloody Marys. We like Rick's Picks Smokra pickled okra.
Dishes that call for okra should be prepared using fresh okra. Select bright green and firm pods. All portions of the pod are edible. Okra doesn't freeze well; it breaks down and loses both flavor and texture when frozen. Okra is a natural thickener and its juices have a little bit of a slimy mouthfeel. The fresher the okra, the less slippery feel there is. The outer skin of the pod has the texture of a tender green bean; the inner seeds are firm and crispy, like beans.
Okra is a seasonal item only found in the summer, so go to your local fresh market and grab a couple and give them a try!
(Image: Kathryn Hill)