Summer Foods, Okra

By Virginia Willis Special to CNN | 8/14/2013, noon
In this series for the Southern Foodways Alliance, I am examining iconic Southern foods that so completely belong to summer ...
Okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of shapes and forms. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled (seen here), broiled, pickled, whole, sliced, julienned. (Photo by Virginia Willis).

Okra is not, however, solely found in the American South or in Africa. The ancient routes by which okra was taken from central Africa to Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean and to India is not certain, but we do know that okra is found in abundance in three major areas today -- East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. It is also found in pockets in the Caribbean, as well as in South America.

One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow.

There are actually 50 species of wild and cultivated okra around the world. According to the USDA, okra grows best in zones 4a through 11 in the United States. One acre of okra usually produces 200 to 250 bushels of okra, or approximately 600 to 750 pounds. That is a lot of gumbo! Depending on the variety, the plant will tower up to 12 feet in the Southern garden. Clemson Spineless is the favorite hybrid of Southern gardeners, but many heirloom varieties are reemerging from the garden shed, including Star of David, a stumpy star-shaped pod; Hill Country Red, a vivid velvety red okra from Texas; and Perkins Mammoth Long Pod, an okra varietal that produces pods up to 16 inches in length -- and still tastes good!

On that note, most okra doesn’t taste good when it’s that long; it becomes tough and woody. In general, look for young, small pods no longer than 4 inches, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger! At the market, buy okra that is firm, unblemished and brightly colored. Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green, almost white, especially at local farmers markets. Make sure to avoid limp, bruised, blemished and moldy pods.

To get you started, here are my top five tips to get you past the slime, followed by a very unorthodox grilled gumbo that keeps the both the slime -- and time -- factor to a minimum.

Top Five Slime Busting Tips:

Choose small pods.

Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.

Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.

Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar or wine when cooking.

Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Grilled Shrimp and Okra “Gumbo”

Serves 6

Leave the soup pot in the cupboard! Succulent shrimp and spicy Andouille sausage team up with sweet onion, tomatoes and okra for a delicious dish that tastes like gumbo but doesn’t take hours to cook. This dish is going to absolutely knock your socks off.

1 pound large shrimp (21-25 count), peeled and deveined

12 ounces fully cooked Andouille sausage, halved lengthwise

1 pint grape tomatoes

12 ounces finger-size okra, stems trimmed

1 onion, preferably Vidalia, sliced into 1/4-inch rings

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips

1 poblano or green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into quarters