Sometimes referred to as "soul food," okra is a vegetable that many people are afraid to try. The green pod-like cases may seem unfamiliar and its somewhat slimy texture when cooked can be off-putting. The flavor, similar to that of eggplant, may be an acquired taste. However, okra is used in a number of international cuisines throughout North America and around the world and is a nutritional powerhouse.
Okra offers a number of nutritious benefits, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health. The green vegetable contains no fat, no cholesterol, high levels of dietary fiber, and is extremely low in calories. A half cup of cooked okra contains just 20 calories and provides a well-rounded dose of vitamins and minerals. It's an excellent source of antioxidants, including 20 percent of the average adult's daily recommended intake of vitamin C and contains an abundance of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin A. It's an ideal addition to a diabetes-friendly diet, as one half cup of okra contains just one gram of sugar and four grams of carbohydrates.
Okra is a popular part of Creole cuisine. The pod of the okra plant releases a liquid that acts as a thickening agent, making the vegetable a staple ingredient in Southern-style gumbo. Experiment with these different ways of preparing okra:
- Steam washed and trimmed okra until just tender. Season and enjoy.
- Julienne (cut into thin strips) okra, saut?, and toss with onion, tomato, and fresh herbs
- Cook saut?ed okra, corn, other vegetables, and tomato paste to a stew-like consistency and serve over rice.
- Stir fry with bell peppers, carrots, and broccoli and add a dash of stir fry sauce for an Asian-inspired vegetarian dish.
- Coat washed okra in cornmeal and fry for a crunchy side dish.
The peak growing season is summer, though frozen okra is also available in most grocery stores. When choosing fresh okra, look for pods that are bright or dark green (depending on the variety) with no dark spots or blemishes. The pods should be firm and dry to ensure the best flavor and nutrients. Store fresh okra in perforated plastic in the vegetable or fruit bin of the refrigerator to extend its life as long as possible--temperatures that are either too cold or too hot can accelerate the process of decay. Avoid washing or slicing the vegetable until just before you're ready to use it--wet, cut okra often turns slimy and spoils quickly. Okra usually lasts for two to three days before the ends of the pods begin to darken, a condition that indicates spoilage. Freeze okra after blanching (a quick in-and-out of boiling water) the pods if you're not going to eat the vegetable right away.
Okra originated around the 12th century B.C. in Ethiopia. Ancient Egyptians soon were cultivating the vegetable and invented an alternative form of consumption: they toasted the seeds of the okra plant to brew a coffee-like beverage. Some African and Middle Eastern populations still drink a beverage derived from okra as a substitute for coffee.