Cultivating Okra brings endless joy to my summer mornings.
My daughter and I spotted okra seedlings at a farmer’s stand this past Spring. “Mom! You love Okra!” she exclaimed “you should get some!” I had vowed not to plant any vegetables on my deck this summer. All past experiments inevitably led to heartbreak. With a dozen pots of varying sizes, I am limited in my choices and my plants are inevitably attacked and decimated by various urban pests: birds, squirrels and maybe a raccoon occasionally, not to mention the entire insect kingdom, from hungry caterpillars to stubborn aphids. Despite it all, and all summers past, I was seized by the desire to give it a go, at least, if nothing else, for educational purposes.
So… on the 26th day of May, I began with six seedlings. Three to one pot. Almost instantly, two of them died—probably the victims of the invasive, wandering mint that appeared out of nowhere. The third small seedling proved to be a fighter and lives on, to this day, although somewhat dwarfed by her heartless colonizer.
The other pot flaunted three healthy plants. I watched and I waited. I have been particularly busy lately and had no time for research, so I threw my expectations to the wind: “Jump right in and figure it out later”—my life’s new mantra and modus operandi. The first appearance of a couple of buds sent me shrieking with excitement.
It was June 8th. I thought I was seeing baby okra at first, but it turned out they were buds not pods. By June 13th the first plant gave me its first flower. I watched and I observed… Okra flowers are shy and ephemeral. They appear at the juncture of stem and leaf. Shaded by the leaves, the flower dazzles for one day, and one day only. I swooned over that first sighting: five creamy delicate, yellow petals forming a bell-like shape with a dark crimson heart and a yellow pistil with a crimson crown. By dusk it swirled onto itself, shutting out the world to gestate and give birth to the pod growing inside her.
My Okra plants are large and thirsty. By July 12th I had harvested a dozen pods. We are now the beginning of August and I have dozen more and at least fifty photographs. I sautéed my first dozen and froze them, the others, still being collected in a ziplock bag in the fridge, will have to be processed soon.
August 3rd: the runt bore her first fruit. The plant is about a foot tall compared to the others that have reached 5 feet at least and looking rather spindly. The pot is much too small.
Unfortunately, I see the end in sight. I suspect we will be saying our goodbyes soon. The lower leaves, are turning yellow and falling off. I feel sad. I have kept a close eye on them daily. No other plant on my deck has given me as much pleasure, not even the thriving Basil. Like children I nursed them. Like pets I catered to their needs. I suspected it would be a fleeting, short lived affair, but I’m glad I enjoyed the ride while it lasted.
Okra, is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it boasts some amazing health benefits. It is an annual flowering plant in the mallow family—same as Mulukhia, the hollyhock, the rose of Sharon and the hibiscus. It is also called Gumbo or ladies’ fingers. It is high in fiber, low in calories and contains B and C vitamins, calcium, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It have finally looked up its origin (Africa) and its history and discovered that leaves and flowers are edible too.
I cook okra year-round using the frozen Egyptian kind found at Middle-Eastern grocers. The pods are tiny and the stems have carefully been removed. The fresh okra at the market is usually huge and seedy. I will cherish my own harvest and save it for a special occasion giving it the pomp and fanfare it deserves. The recipe that follows is a favorite family dish that can be eaten cold with bread or warm with rice.
My Okra Recipe
1 Large Tomato peeled* and chopped
1 Large Onion peeled and chopped
4 cloves of Garlic
Juice of a lemon or
6 cloves garlic crushed
1 bunch Cilantro Chopped
1 tsp coriander powder***
1 tsp salt
Defrost okra, spread over dish towels to dry. Toss in a little olive oil and spread in baking sheet. Place in 375 F oven and roast until slightly golden. 15 minutes approximately.
(You can skip this method entirely and just add the okra to the onions when the latter have turned transparent and golden).
Saute onions in a little vegetable oil. After the onions have turned golden, add the okra tomatoes the four cloves of garlic and the lemon juice. Add a little water to barely cover, turn down heat to low for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cilantro mix, simmer for half an hour longer or until okra is tender. Taste and adjust salt and lemon. I love to substitute lemon juice with pomegranate molasses (I often use a little of both). Lemon is brighter, but pomegranate is deeper in flavor.
*to peel tomatoes soak in boiling water for a few minutes
**To make the Cilantro mix, wash, dry and chop cilantro, crush garlic. In a little olive oil in a small pan, place over medium flame add garlic salt and coriander first, stir until garlic begins to turn golden, then add the chopped cilantro and fry up a little longer. set aside. You can make this ahead of time in batches and freeze. Using when and wherever needed.
*** Coriander is the seed of the Cilantro plant. It comes whole or in powder form.
p.s. Call me fickle and unfaithful, but I’d been so absorbed with my newly found affair, that I had completely forgotten my Mulukhia! Half way through the summer, when I went to find farmer Heinz I sadly discovered he was no longer coming to DC!