The Kitchen Garden
Okra’s slime problem
By Jan Leitschuh
Okra has an image problem.
During the blast-furnace days of August, tropical okra thrives, throwing off pods with merry abandon, challenging growers to pick faster before the pods grow too long and tough.
This finger-shaped Southern vegetable is rarely available in grocery stores or supermarkets. You’ll either have to search it out at local farm stands or farmers markets, or grow it yourself (no difficult task).
So it isn’t necessarily a familiar vegetable for many transplants and town dwellers. Lots of people around here still have no idea what to do with the pinkie-sized, ridged green veggie, or how to cook it. And unless you grew up with it, you may not know it as culinary real estate on your dinner plate.
Even for those who do know okra, there may lurk an underlying aversion: slime.
Talk about okra, and a good number of people make that face, wrinkling their noses and calling its texture “slimy.” Okra is rich in a gel-like substance called mucilage. Turns out that slime is actually good for you. It’s healing for an irritated gut, helps with digestion, and it can help lower cholesterol by binding to it. It puts the “gum” in gumbo.
But if slime ain’t your bag, nothing I say — such as okra is full of antioxidants and contains lectin, which is a type of protein that can inhibit the growth of human cancer cells — will turn you on. I get it. My husband is in your tribe.
If you’re a Southern cook and grew up eating okra, well, do your thang, sugah. Pickled okra all the way! Stewed garden tomatoes, onions and okra. Chopped okra in soups and gumbos. Steam it till the slime squeaks.
But if this veggie is less familiar to you and you’re determined to hold your nose and have your “when-in-Rome” encounter, perhaps you’d like to start with a slimeless way of getting to know this stellar hot-weather veggie.
The most delicious cop-out, er, method of consumption, of course, is breaded and fried. Almost everyone likes fried okra, all crispy and salty fried crumbs with a vegetable patina. They are the French fries of the produce world. But if you don’t want to get this fussy/fried, let’s look at other methods of de-sliming this worthy Southern vegetable. High heat and longer cooking time will eliminate the slime factor (but also some of the health benefits).
The simplest way to de-slime okra is to roast it.
Rinse a batch, and dry thoroughly to prevent steam. Cut the stem ends off. Slice pods in half, toss in olive oil and layer in a baking dish or sheet pan. Add salt and pepper. Simple, and so good! Typically, we will toss other veggies in the mix as the garden allows: green pepper slices, halved cherry tomatoes, onions sliced into rings, zucchini or yellow squash slices, green beans and more. Roast (bake) at 375 for 30-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle on a little garlic powder. Add a slice of melon, a chicken breast or a burger and you have a meal.
Or, turn your oven up higher, to 425. Prep a bag of a few teaspoons of garlic salt and shake pods vigorously. Let sit for 10 minutes to draw out moisture. Then add a cup of cornmeal and perhaps some Creole seasonings, shake again. Rest another 10 minutes. Remove pods onto a foil-lined sheet pan, and spritz with cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes, turn pods, bake another 15. Oven-baked crunchy goodness, without frying.
Grilling is another simple method of removing the goo. Lay the pods directly on the grill or skewer sideways for easier handling. Another option is to skewer with small onions and cherry tomatoes. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, perhaps some cayenne pepper. Depending on the heat of your grill, this will take 10-20 minutes. Remove and shake some Parmesan shreds on top. Serve with your grilled chicken.
Searing in a cast iron pan is easy and will reduce slime. Just don’t add so many that the crowding causes steaming — steaming increases slime.
The acid of lemons or tomatoes can cut the consistency down a bit. Stewed tomatoes and okra are classic.
Finally, selection can play a role in low slime — choose small, fresh pods. The smaller the pod, the less slime you’ll get. The largest pods can be fibrous and tough. You can store your farmers market finds in the fridge for a day or two, but too long or too much causes black spots to appear.
Fellow garden enthusiast and neighbor Cameron Sadler of Southern Pines recently shared her okra enthusiasm, and I will pass it along:
Cameron Sadler’s Garlic-Roasted Okra
Get a large sheet pan, and lay your okra on top of it. Okra should be sliced in half, long way. It’s good to use about one clove of garlic per cup of okra. Slice the garlic cloves into skinny slivers, or mash with crusher. Put garlic on top of the okra. I like to melt a stick of butter, then spoon it over the garlic and okra.
Top with sprinkles of some really good salt, pick your favorite one. Stir it around halfway through cooking, so everything is coated. I roast mine for one hour at 350 degrees. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table.