Okra: Ladies’ Fingers of the South

I actually can’t remember not liking okra, even as a kid who really wasn’t all that fond of many vegetables. It mattered not to me if it was stewed with or without tomatoes, or breaded and fried. I really liked okra just about any way it was prepared. And to this day I still do. 

Being lucky enough to have a wife who loves gardening and also shares my love of okra, she grows it almost every year. In years past, the plants grew only about five or six feet tall and were somewhat spindly. But this year was totally different. The plants grew to over eight feet tall, were extremely bushy but didn’t make a single flower and therefore produced no okra. That is until about the last week of August when the plants seemed to suddenly realize they were supposed to produce fruit. So they did! Seemingly to make up for the slow start, they began producing a plethora of new flowers every day and within a week we were getting more okra than we ever imagined. It  grew so fast that we were having to harvest every two or three days. In fact, we had so much okra we were giving it away to just about anyone who would take it. Even then, we were constantly trying new okra recipes in an effort to utilize as much of those delicious pods as possible—pickling it, cooking it with fresh tomatoes, freezing it, frying it, making fritters, and more.

Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is a member of the Mallow family, therefore related to hollyhock and to cotton. A tall heat loving tropical annual, okra is cultivated primarily for its edible seed pods which can vary in color from green to red, depending on the variety. It has large heart-shaped leaves and yellow to cream colored, hibiscus-like flowers that open only for one day before becoming a three-inch to ten-inch long tapered seed pod, within 24 to 48 hours. It is these pods that are used as a vegetable. 

Ideally picked when only three to six inches in length in order to preserve its tender texture and sweet flavor, okra pods if allowed to fully develop, can grow to over ten-inches long becoming woody and totally inedible. Young okra leaves can also be used in salads or prepared like any other greens. 

Okra, or ladies’ fingers as the pods are sometimes referred to because of their long, tapered, finger-like shape, is thought by many historians to have originated in east Africa. It was cultivated as early as the 12th century BC in and around Ethiopia, including portions of Eritrea, and Egypt. From there it traveled eastward to Arabia and other Mediterranean countries, including India. By the year 2,000 BC okra has spread throughout western and southern Africa by way of the Bantu tribes fleeing Egypt. In fact, West African slaves brought to America referred to okra as “ngombo,” the Bantu word for gumbo. That name (among others) stuck with deep Southerners for many years but today gumbo is a dish in which okra is an ingredient. The word “okra,” first came to be used in 1679 in the Virginia Colony, also came from West Africans, a derivative of their word “nkruma.”

One of the earliest accounts of okra being used as a foodstuff is by Spanish Moors traveling through Egypt in 1216. They described the Egyptians cultivating okra and incorporating the young pods into their meals.

Okra arrived in the Southern United States by way of the Caribbean at the beginning of the slave trade in the 1500s. Like rice, okra was one of the few crop seeds slaves were able to smuggle from their West African homes. It’s recorded that seeds of these and other seeds and grains were braided into the the hair of children in order to ensure they had familiar sustenance in the new and unknown land to which they were headed. And other stories about slaves making the treacherous voyage to America with okra seeds hidden in their ears. 

While slow to gain popularity in much of the country it was quickly accepted by Louisiana’s French colonists where they used it extensively in soups and stews. By 1748 okra was being grown as far north as Philadelphia and in 1781 Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president proclaimed it a well know crop in Virginia. Jefferson, proud of the okra he grew at his home in Monticello, described himself as a “very old man but a very young gardener.” By 1806 there were several known varieties of okra being grown in the American South.

Okra is one of those foods that you either like or don’t like. Those with an aversion to okra are turned off by its sliminess—the glutinous substance known as mucilage that develops when cooked. But it’s this characteristic gooeyness that’s also one of okra’s beneficial traits. Not only can it thicken soups, stews, and sauces, it’s also high in fiber, one of okras numerous health assets. Other health benefits include low fats and calories, high in vitamins C and K, minerals such as iron and potassium and antioxidants. This superfood is also thought to contain properties that may benefit pregnant women, heart health and cholesterol and blood sugar control.

In addition to being used in many popular culinary dishes, okra seeds have been roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. Okra and its parts have also been used to produce a number commercial applications—cooking oils, biofuel, strengthen polymer composites, treating waste water, and biodegradable food packaging. 

If you’re an okra eater, chances are you’ve had the Clemson Spineless variety, since its meaty, dark green, slightly grooved pods account for about 90% of all commercially grown okra. Clemson pods are full flavored and can be prepared in any way you care to make them, from stewed to fried, roasted to sautéed. For you gardeners in the audience, this variety is easy to grow and an excellent producer, developing in about 55 days and ready to  harvest four days after flowering.

Another excellent variety for your garden is Louisiana Green Velvet. Although a bit more picky, taking about two months to mature, this heirloom plant is very popular in the state for which it is named. Delicious fried or in gumbo. 

Have you ever seen red okra? Many people don’t know red okra exists, since when it’s cooked it turns green just like any other. To retain its unique aesthetic appeal red okra must be served raw or pickled. There are several varieties of red okra—Red Burgundy, Little Lucy, Hill Country Red, Aunt Hettie’s Red, and Red Velvet. Red okra can be prepared in any way that green varieties can be. And their taste is indiscernible from that of green okra.

So there you have it. Some facts and other information about one of my absolute favorite fruits. Oh, didn’t I mention that okra is actually a fruit that we eat as a vegetable? Because it develops from the ovary of the flower and contains seeds needed to reproduce, it is technically a fruit, as are string beans, peas, squash, eggplant, avocados, tomatoes, and bell peppers.

And for you culinary adventurers, I have included this popular New Orleans dish for your cooking pleasure:

Okra & Tomatoes with Gulf Shrimp

Serves 6 people

Whatcha Need:
1-1/2 pounds large (15-20 size) raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
4-1/2 teaspoons Louisiana Cajun Seasoning, divided
9 slices hickory smoked bacon, chopped
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups diced fresh or frozen okra
1-1/2 cups diced Roma tomatoes, seeded
1-1/2 cup Louisiana Salsa, medium
12 ounces clam juice
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced
3 cups cooked rice

Whatcha Do:

  1. In a large bowl, put shrimp and 2-1/4 teaspoons Cajan seasoning and toss to ensure all shrimp are coated. Set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until browned and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon to paper towels to drain. Add flour to bacon drippings and cook, stirring constantly, until roux is dark brown, 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
  3. Add okra, salsa, and diced tomatoes and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add clam juice and cook, stirring often, until thickened. Add shrimp and cook an additional 5 minutes or until just opaque. Stir in parsley, geen onions, and cooked bacon. 
  4. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice.

Farina or Cream of Wheat

1186651-at_the_dinerOne morning on a recent road trip, I stopped at the local diner in a small Mississippi town. While sitting at the counter having breakfast, I overheard several guys discussing the proper way to season their grits. One gentleman remarked that he and his fellow Arkansans favored sugar while a couple of the local boys said they preferred salt on their grits. Another local spoke up, declaring he too liked sweet grits, “with a big pat of butter.”

Then one man, originally from the Northeast, declared that he was raised on Cream of Wheat instead of grits.

“Isn’t that the same as Farina?”

“Farina is made from corn.”

“No, no, they’re both made from wheat. Farina is just a brand name.”

“Cream of Wheat is a brand, too. It’s the one in the red box with the old white guy on the front.”

“Yeah? I thought that was Quaker Oats.”

With that I quietly paid my bill, walked to my car, and got back on the road, thinking how little we sometimes know of cultures and foods outside the surroundings in which we were raised. It was obvious that most of the locals at that diner had probably never traveled more than fifty miles from their small town, and certainly had the limited palate to show for it.

I myself, in spite of a culinary career that has exposed me to all kinds of foods from around the world, tend to list the foods I grew up with as my favorites. And, having grown up as the son of a couple of Oklahoma farmers, cream of wheat would certainly not make the list!

productsCream of Wheat is a brand of farina, a porridge-type breakfast food that while having a texture similar to grits, is ground simolina wheat kernels instead of ground corn. There are also several other brands of farina sold in this country, the most prominent being Malt-O-Meal, third largest cereal manufacturer in America founded in 1919, and Farina, a cereal-boxes-origbrand started by Pillsbury in 1898 and purchased by Malt-O-Meal from U.S. Mills in 2009. And there are several smaller brands including Phoebe, Bob’s Red Mill, Goober Gourmet, and Honeyville.

Cream of Wheat was invented by Thomas S. Amidon, head miller at Diamond Mills in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Amidon had begun making the hot breakfast porridge for his family, when in the midst of a national economic downturn he went to the mill owners, Emery Mapes, George Bull, and Clifford George, and convinceddownload (1) them to market the cereal he called Cream of Wheat (so named because it was so white).

Demand for Cream of Wheat soon outgrew the Grand Forks mill, so in 1897 Mapes, Bull, and Clifford moved the mill to Minneapolis. Growth continued and by 1928 the plant had expanded two additional times. In 1962, after sixty-nine years of being run by generations of the original owners, the mill was sold to Nabisco. Nabisco merged with Standard Brands in 1981 and was then bought out by Kraft Foods in 2000. In 2007, Kraft sold Cream of Wheat to B&G Foods where it continues to be produced by the same formula it began with 120 years ago.

The Cream of Wheat package is indeed red, however the “guy on the front” is an downloadAfrican-American chef named Rastus, developed by artist Edward V. Brewer. It is said that an actual chef by the name of Frank L. White was Brewer’s model for the box. Mr. White died in 1938 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Leslie, Michigan. On his headstone is an etching of the man depicted on the Cream of Wheat box.

Today, there are six kinds of Cream of Wheat, including Original, Whole Grain and COWCream of Rice, as well as five flavors of Instant Cream of Wheat on the market.

My wife, an Italian lady from New York, initiated me to the delicate taste of the original unflavored Cream of Wheat some thirty years ago. She prefers it lightly salted with butter and a little milk or light cream. And while it’s certainly not a bad way to get started on a cold morning, I myself am partial to oatmeal over either Cream of Wheat or grits.

Yep, you guessed it. Oatmeal’s the hot breakfast cereal I grew up on.

Make Em: Cream of Wheat Breakfast Bake, Apple Cranberry Crumble, Chocolate Chip Pudding, Country Polenta