To experience multiculturalism at its best on Canada Day or any day, find a supermarket with a bin of fresh okra.
Lovers of the edible green pod were stocking up at my local No Frills recently, thrilled with the low price and excellent quality from the Dominican Republic. Small quantities of okra are also being grown in Ontario.
Elbowing my way into the crowd, I asked the woman beside me how to choose the best ones. She looked around furtively then, with a Ssh!, showed me how she flicked the slender tip like a lighter. If it snapped off, she put it in her bag. Limp tips stayed in the bin.
Another woman, who’d lived in India, was doing the same. Then a woman from China reached into the pile. Instead of flicking the bottom, she put her nail through the top of the pod to test for freshness. This is why more and more produce is being sold in bags!
I felt like a criminal snapping tips, and switched to choosing short fat bright green pods, which was pretty well all of them.
When I asked how to cook them, my new friends smiled.
“We do so many things with okra!” said a woman from Trinidad, who was also buying several pounds’ worth of pods.
She nodded approvingly as my first buddy gave me detailed instructions on cooking the mild-tasting pods with shrimp and a little soy sauce.
A man from Greece joined in, voting for his wife’s okra with chicken.
An American woman from Georgia said she loves okra sliced into rounds, coated in cornmeal and fried. And everyone agreed okra and tomatoes is a match made in heaven.
I walked to the cash thinking about how food brings us together no matter where we’re from, and feeling more confident about tackling this strange vegetable.
Buy & Store
- Choose bright, smooth, unblemished green pods less than 4 inches (10 cm.) long.
- Eat as soon as possible, within a day or two.
- Refrigerate in a paper bag or wrap loosely in a plastic bag with a paper towel.
- In season July to September.
Slash the Slime
Okra contains a clear, thick liquid that’s released when you slice or chop it. To minimize gumminess, fry or grill whole or cook with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes and vinegar.
- Okra loves tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, eggplant and sweet corn.
- Steam or boil whole pods until tender, about 8 minutes. Serve cold with a vinaigrette or hot with lemon, melted butter and salt and pepper.
- Thicken soups or stews with sliced okra. Add in the last 10 minutes of cooking for a velvety texture. Gumbo with seafood or smoked sausage is a Louisiana favourite.
- Stir-fry whole or sliced okra on high heat in a little oil. Go Indian with onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder and cilantro.
- Grill whole pods, tossed in oil, on high heat until bright green with grill marks, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook another 5 minutes until tender. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice.
- Pickle raw okra with cider vinegar, garlic, dill seeds and pickling salt.
In preliminary findings, French scientists report that okra extract stopped the spread of melanoma, or skin cancer, in mice. While nobody’s promising miracles just yet, we do know okra is super low in calories and a good source of Vitamin C and folate.
Tomatoes, vinegar and searing the okra all combine to make this dish ideal for newbies. Cutting pods just before cooking also helps keep them slime-free.
4 boned, skinned chicken thighs (12 -16 oz./350-450 g)
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) freshly ground pepper
8 oz. (225 g) fresh okra, cut in half on the diagonal
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced (remove seeds for a milder flavour)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped (1 lb./450 g)*
1 cup (250 mL) chicken broth
1 tbsp (15 mL) tomato paste (squeeze tubes are great!)
1 tbsp (15 mL) red wine vinegar
Heat 2 tbsp (30 mL) oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Rub chicken with salt and pepper and cook until golden, 5 minutes per side. With tongs, transfer to a plate and keep warm.
Add sliced okra to hot pan and cook 3 to 4 minutes, until bright green and charred, stirring twice. Transfer okra to plate.
Reduce heat to medium and add remaining 1 tbsp (15 mL) oil to pan. When hot, add onion, celery, jalapeno and garlic. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender. Add tomatoes and cook 5 minutes to blend flavours.
Stir in broth, tomato paste and vinegar, mixing well. Bring to boil and cook 10 minutes to reduce sauce.
Return cooked chicken and okra with any juices to skillet. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes, uncovered, until chicken is cooked and vegetables are tender. Check salt and pepper. Serve over steamed basmati rice.
Makes 2 servings.
*I prefer peeling tomatoes and peaches with a julienne peeler rather than dunking them in boiling water.
Star-tested by Cynthia David.
Every other Thursday, Fresh Bites helps you tantalize your taste buds with out-of-the-ordinary produce.
Hi Cynthia: As usual a great column. It made me think when you wrote about how to choose and buy okra, of corn on the cob. I go insane when our local corn season arrives and in supermarkets and sometimes even farmers’ markets people insist on tearing the husks off so they can see if the cob is just the way they want it. What happens according to the produce staff is that the shorn corn is usually left aside so they can’t sell it. Also, shoppers who treat cobs in this fashion do not seem to realize that they are exposing the fresh corn to the air so by the time they get home the cobs have lost most of their freshness. I have written about this (albeit several years ago,) but would love to see you address it in your clever food-wise way! Cheers, Judy P.S. Did you know Elizabeth Baird has received the Order of Canada this year. Rose Murray and I nominated her six years ago but it did not happen until now. Judy
Thanks Judy! You’re right, we don’t think about how our poking and prodding leads to wasted food.As much as I hate it, packaging does keep produce fresh longer.