Okra isn’t a vegetable kids who grew up in northern Minnesota would hear much about in their formative years. In fact, many of them probably never had an inkling about the flowering plant in the mallow family.
I can attest to that. My first exposure to the plant known in many English-speaking countries as ladies’ fingers or ochro was probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
Valued for its edible green seed pods, okra has its roots in South Asia, Ethiopia or West Africa, depending on who you ask. Originally introduced to the Americas in the 17th century by ships plying the Atlantic slave trade, it since has become become a staple in Creole and Cajun dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya.
I’ve grown okra several times over the past 20 years, discovering along the way, with help from the late Mason Hollifield — he died in 2016 — that the pods should be picked when small, otherwise they become tough and stringy.
Hollilfield, who was executive director of the Red River Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross before retiring in 2004, was a North Carolina native who knew more than a little about okra. He told me that he loved fried okra but that he couldn’t find anybody up here who fried it right. He said that well-fried okra is just lightly dusted with cornmeal. His mother added it to soups, occasionally mixed it with other vegetables and generally “put it in just about anything.”
Mason told me the biggest mistake people make is overcooking okra. He said they are a lot like beans. If you overcook them, they turn to mush. He added they were best al dente, like pasta.
A lot of people associate okra with gumbo, a well-known Southern delicacy. It was my first introduction to cooking with okra, which was rekindled this summer with a bumper crop. So when I came across the following recipe, I decided to just let the “fingers” do the talking.
Chicken Gumbo Soup
2 to 3 cups cooked chicken (can be smoked)
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 pint sliced carrots or 3 to 4 carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
2 chicken bouillon cubes
8 cups vegetable broth or water
10 roma tomatoes, skins removed, or 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 cup cabbage, chopped
1 small zucchini, sliced
1 cup frozen peas
2 cups green beans or 1 15-ounce can green beans
½ cup pearled barley
Salt and pepper to taste
File gumbo to taste
Place all ingredients in stock pot and cook for 2 hours. Serve with cornbread.