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CHEFS In Season: Okra
Featured Okra Recipes
About Okra
Okra, whose name is derived from the West African "nkruma", comes from a large vegetable plant thought to be of Ethiopia origin. The okra plant fruit is a fuzzy, green colored and ribbed "lantern"-shaped pod that is approximately 2-7 inches in length. This vegetable flourished throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the seed pods were consumed cooked and the seeds toasted, ground, and served as a coffee substitute. Cultivated by the Egyptians by the 12th century B.C., okra was brought to the Caribbean and United States by African slaves in the 1700s. Thriving in tropical and warm temperate climates, it is in the same plant family as hibiscus and cotton. Today, in the United States, the leading okra producers are Texas, Florida, Georgia and California. Okra can be found in African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, and South American cuisines. In the United States, okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern regions.

Okra is typically available frozen, pickled and canned year round throughout the United States. In the South, fresh okra pods may be available year round, with fresh supplies peaking in July and August in other areas. Okra comes in three grades: fancy, choice, and jumbo, and are based on the length of the okra pod. Fancy okra pods are up to 3-1/2 inches long. Choice grade okra pods are between 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 inches long. Jumbo okra pods are over 4-1/2 inches long but still tender.

The most common varieties are the Clemson, Emerald, Lee, Annie Oakley, Chinese okra, and Purple Okra:
• Clemson variety is dark green with angular pods. This okra takes less than two months to mature.
• Emerald type is dark green, with smooth round pods.
• Lee is a spineless type known by its deep bright green, very straight angular pods.
• Annie Oakley is a hybrid, spineless kind of okra with bright green, angular pods. It takes less than two months from seeding to maturity.
• Chinese okra is a dark green type grown in California and reaches 10 to 13 inches in length. These extra-long okra pods are sometimes called "ladyfingers."
• Purple Okra a rare variety you may see at peak times. There is a version grown for its leaves that resemble sorrel in New Guinea.
When buying fresh okra, make sure that you select dry, firm, okra. Look for dark green young pods free of bruises, tender but not soft. Typically, the smaller pods will be the tenderest.
To check for tenderness, look to the tip of the okra. Pods with tips that will bend between the fingers without breaking or snapping off, will tend to be tough and woody. Okra pods which are bent or have dark spots should be discarded. Do not wash the okra pods until ready to use, or it will become slimy.
Once harvested, okra pods will rapidly lose moisture. To help maintain freshness, okra should be stored in the refrigerator at 45 to 50 F with 90 to 95 percent relative humidity. Fresh okra in good condition may be stored in a paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel in a perforated plastic bag for up to 10 days, or it may be frozen for up to 12 months after blanching whole for 2 minutes. Avoid storing fresh okra pods in air-tight containers, as it will lose color rapidly due to bleaching, and there can be a buildup of heat due to respiration of the okra causing it to breakdown and become discolored, limp, and inedible. Cooked okra can be stored (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

Severe cold temperatures will speed up okra decay. Okra stored at temperatures below 45°F will develop chilling injury which is a pitting and discoloration of the pods. Ice should not be used to cool okra. Water from the melting ice will cause a spotting on the pods.
Besides the shape, one of the most distinctive features of okra is its stickiness or "slime". When preparing, remember that the more it is cut, the slimier it will become. Okra is commonly used as a thickening agent in soups and stews because of its sticky core. However, okra may also be steamed, boiled, pickled, sautéed, or stir-fried whole. To help reduce the stickiness of the okra in prepared dished, simply trim the ends and avoid puncturing the okra capsule. You can also minimize the "slime" by not overcooking the okra pods.
Before cooking or eating fresh okra, wash the pods thoroughly. Trim the crown end and tips. The pods are most typically cut into small circular sections and used in variety of cuisines in Indian and Asian countries. Chopped or sliced pods are then stewed or fried in low heat then mixed with other vegetables, rice or meat. In Caribbean islands okra is cooked and eaten as soup, often with fish. The pods can be pickled and preserved like other vegetables. Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar manner as the greens of beets or dandelions. The leaves are also eaten raw in salads.

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