Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Not just another pretty plant

Growing up in Maryland, okra wasn't part of our diet. And since we've lived in Texas I've managed to avoid it for the most part. I hate biting into crunchy seeds surrounded by slime. I never thought I would grow okra in my garden, but I was persuaded to give it a try after seeing photos of beautiful okra plants. I figured that at least the plants would be ornamental even if I didn't enjoy the harvest.

Related to hibiscus, okra produces gorgeous flowers on lush, tropical plants that thrive in our hot weather. I selected "Burmese" okra from Southern Exposure, based on the catalog description:

58 days. [Heirloom okra from Burma sent by organic market grower Hap Heilman. Now a favorite in some local restaurants.] 'Burmese' okra bears when plants are 18" tall and continues to bear until frost. The leaves are huge, typically 16" across. The slightly curved, virtually spineless pods range from 9 to 12" long. Pods mature from light green to creamy yellow green. At 10" inches long, they are tender, sweet, and spineless enough to be eaten raw or added to salads. Pods are less gooey than other okra, a quality that gives this variety a greater appeal.

The "less gooey" nature of Burmese okra, and its favor among "local" restaurants sounded promising.

I started the seeds in mid-April, and the plants languished for quite a while. They didn't look sickly, but they didn't grow either. I stopped paying attention to them (since I wasn't exactly dying for an okra harvest) until one day I noticed a single large spike sticking up from one of the plants. The plants were still short, so it was hard to miss a pod of almost 10" curving up from the center of one of them. This okra pod was amazing, and certainly didn't resemble anything I'd seen at the grocery store. The plants had finally grown up, developing very pretty green leaves edged in red, and flowers in a pale buttery yellow with deep burgundy centers.

The okra pod was so attractive it was hard to cut if off the plant. I was also at a loss as to what to do with a single okra pod. I wanted to give it a try, but I wasn't willing to eat it raw (although I have read that raw okra is a tasty addition to salads). I figured almost every vegetable is edible when sauteed in butter and olive oil, so I sliced my giant okra pod and quickly cooked it, adding some sea salt and pepper. David refused to taste even one bite, claiming a lifelong hatred of okra, but I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh, crunchy taste of my Burmese okra. The catalog didn't lie -- there wasn't any slime.

My reaction (and constant nagging) convinced David to try our okra when we had a more substantial harvest. He decided a true Southern recipe would be fitting, and we agreed on Fried Okra from Frank Stitt's Southern Table. The Fried Okra recipe is simple, using a batter of cornmeal, flour and buttermilk. But it also calls for 2 pounds of okra, and while my harvest had increased by a staggering 400%, it meant that this time I had just 4 pods to cook. Although the pods are big, we still weren't close to the requisite amount. Maybe not a bad thing since it would be tough for just two of us to eat two pounds of fried okra, especially given our ambivalence towards okra in the first place. David scaled back the recipe, and the results were fantastic. Even our older son, seduced by the alluring smells from the kitchen, gave them a try. Admittedly he ate mostly fried batter, but he too was converted into an okra fan.

There are too many variables to decide why this okra is so good. Home grown? Organic? Fresh from the garden? Home cooked? Burmese okra? A good recipe? We'll have to experiment in the kitchen with other recipes to make sure last night wasn't a fluke. And I guess I should try growing a different type of okra next year to see how other okra varieties taste. I'll see how daring I feel when I pick next year's okra variety for the garden, but I'm guessing that I'll have to stick with Burmese. They say you shouldn't mess with success.


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