Monday, September 5, 2016

Okra's Southern Charm

You wouldn't know it from the still-sultry weather, but September has arrived, which means that fall is right around the corner. The Edible Garden is still bursting with delicious offerings, though. This year, Garden horticulturalists planted a large-growing heirloom okra cultivar, Hill Country Red. The okra was planted in mid-summer, but in a short time have grown to great heights, with most individuals now towering well above my 5'7" head. I am completely enamored of these beautiful plants, with their red stalks and creamy white flowers with deep crimson centers. And I'm not the flowers' only fan. They're very popular with pollinators-- both bees and ants do a busy trade among the blossoms.

I am a fairly recent transplant to the South, so okra was not always in my culinary repertoire. Since moving to Atlanta a few years ago, I've enjoyed exploring this oft-maligned vegetable. Although fried okra is delicious, it's also messy, time consuming, and not exactly healthy. My favorite preparation is also the simplest I know. It works best with small okra, about a finger's length, but any size works well. Trim the stems short, but don't remove them. Those little leaf hairs can be prickly when uncooked, so be careful when handling the okra. Toss the okra with a little olive oil, some large flake sea or Himalayan salt, a few grinds of pepper, and an optional dash of whatever spices you're craving. I really enjoy a sprinkle of cayenne. Cajun or Mediterranean blends are good bets, and garam masala seems a natural given okra's place in Indian cuisine. Heat a cast iron pan until it's screaming hot, or turn your grill up high. Add the okra to your pre-heated pan, and cook until they're blistered, about 5-7 minutes, turning occasionally to ensure even cooking. When you're done, you'll have a pile of crisp yet tender okra with no hint of sliminess. It's a fabulous side dish, though honestly I happily eat okra cooked this way as a snack!

Check out your local farmer's market this weekend. If you're in the South, chances are you'll find okra waiting for you to take it home and make it delicious. One more garden gift before the summer's out.

'Red Hill Country' can grow well over ten feet tall!

-Julia da Silva, Interpretation Coordinator

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