Mention okra to most folks and they’ll turn up their noses, yell "Ugh" and begin to conjure up images of one of the most unfairly reviled vegetables. In the lexicon of picky eaters it ranks with liver, squid, rabbit stew, chitterlings and other untouchables.
However, this is not true throughout the land. Up in Irmo, S.C., okra is so popular that each September (Sept. 26-27 this year) the city organizes an annual Okra Strut. This festival, dedicated to the slimy pod, attracts thousands of okra aficionados. The community considers itself the okra-growing center of the universe, and cooks for miles around gather together to offer toothsome concoctions with okra as the main ingredient.
Okra was brought to America by the African slaves and has become an important part of Southern cuisine. The word "gumbo" is also the word for okra, and no self-respecting gumbo is prepared without adding it.
The history of okra goes back centuries to its origin in Africa. There is documented evidence that Egyptian housewives, at the time Antony was courting Cleopatra, were preparing meals that included okra. Okra came to the New World during the 18th century when slaves brought the seeds from the Congo and Ethiopia. French settlers, who had developed many dishes containing the vegetable, also cultivated okra.
Although the plant is considered tropical or semi-tropical, it is also cultivated in France, where it is highly regarded as an exotic vegetable. The French call okra hamya, and in India it is called ladyfingers.
Okra is very popular in Egypt, where it is eaten with mutton and lamb. At one time the mature seeds were used as a substitute for coffee beans, although it is hard to imagine the flavor of okra coffee.
On a trip to India I stayed with friends in Calcutta and was introduced to various fascinating and complex dishes made with okra, or ladyfingers. My Muslim hostess, Mrs. Randerian, heard me mention that okra was a favorite and instructed her cook to prepare it in 12 different versions. Needless to say, my appetite for okra was temporarily sated.
Okra is rich in calcium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin C and is extremely low in calories (about 40 calories per cup). The main objection to okra is the glutinous texture, and blanching in hot water that has been salted can prevent this.
However, I cannot imagine genuine Creole gumbo without this unique characteristic. Summer is the height of the okra season, so be a brave soul, stock up on okra and try it, You just may like it.
Pickled okra is often offered on buffet tables and as a cocktail nibble. During the summer months okra is inexpensive and plentiful, an ideal time to prepare pickled okra and to experiment with other recipes that are interesting, nutritious and delicious.
2 pounds tender, fresh okra (small size)
5 pods hot peppers
5 cloves garlic
½ cup water
1 quart white distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon celery seed
■ Wash okra and pack into hot, sterilized jars.
■ Place a pod of hot pepper and a clove of garlic in each jar.
■ Combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour over okra and
seal. Okra pickles should stand for at least 2 weeks before using. Makes 5 jars.
1 large onion, chopped
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh okra, ends trimmed
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Oregano to taste
Chopped fresh parsley
■ Cook onion in olive oil in a large skillet until soft. Push onions to one corner of the skillet, raise the heat slightly and add okra.
■ Cook until okra browns lightly. Mix okra and onion and spread in a single layer in pan.
■ Top with garlic, tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, pepper, sugar and oregano. Add a bit of water if the mixture sticks.
■ Simmer gently until okra is tender and the tomatoes are reduced to a puree, about 20 minutes. Do not stir; shaking the pan instead.
■ Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot, cold or warm, sprinkled with plenty of parsley. Ideal as a first course or a side dish. This recipe serves 4.
Q: I have searched through hundreds of cookbooks trying to find a recipe for Nun Puffs. My husband keeps talking about how delicious they are, and I am beginning to think he has the wrong name for this dish. If you have a recipe I’ll be forever in your debt. — Sammie Sanford, Naples
A: Cancel the debt! I found this intriguing recipe in Betty Fussell’s book, "I Hear America Cooking."
¼ pound (1 stick) butter
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon each baking powder and salt
4 eggs, separated
■ Melt butter with the milk in a saucepan and remove from heat.
■ Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt and beat into milk.
■ Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.
■ Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the batter.
■ Spoon mixture quickly into buttered muffin tins and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes. Makes 12 puffs.
Doris Reynolds is the author of "Let’s Talk Food" and "When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried." They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, "A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds." For comments and information regarding today’s column, contact Doris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.