A Southern Staple


August 07, 2005|By Sandra Pinckney

My grandparents were born and raised on large successful farms in South Carolina. Then came the boll weevil infestation in the 1930s, wiping out crops and hopes.

My grandfather joined the great Northern migration working his way up the East Coast, finding jobs on the docks, eventually settling in Connecticut.

Mamie and Rufus Vaughn adjusted to life in New England, but held fast to their love of Southern foods.

Grits and country ham, homemade biscuits and cornbread, rice and butter beans, collard and turnip greens, fresh tomatoes and peppers and that all-time Southern favorite: okra.

Okra actually originated in Africa where it was cultivated for centuries, then introduced to North America during the slave trade.

It grows tall and is from the same family as hollyhock, rose of Sharon and hibiscus.

A heat-loving vegetable, it flourished here and quickly became a cornerstone of Southern cuisine. What would gumbo be without it?

In fact, the word for okra in many African languages is gumbo. It can be served breaded and fried. It's called Texas popcorn in the Lone Star state.

The whole pods make excellent pickles, or can be served marinated in salads.

The sticky inside has natural thickening properties, which Louisiana cooks have perfected in Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo.

Because it's considered too gooey for most tastes, it is rarely served alone.

My grandfather made a delicious soup with fresh corn, tomatoes, limas and okra. But he could also eat it whole, plain and alone -- inside and all. And that's where we parted company.

I never gave much thought to okra until last summer. I came across an article extolling the health benefits of okra. It's a powerhouse of valuable nutrients, including vitamin C and an antioxidant that plays a major role in fighting cancer and heart disease and also helps keep the digestive system healthy. Who knew?

Then I found a marvelous recipe from my favorite Southern chef, Edna Lewis, and made a timely visit to the farmers' market. There I discovered okra fresh and right off the vine.

I was told to choose the small firm ones -- between 2 and 3 inches long -- and to either cook them right away or freeze them for later.

I cooked them right away and froze some.

By the way, okra can be kept frozen for up to 12 months if you blanch it whole for two minutes, drain and place it in freezer bags.

The recipe I used is described as a delicious saute of fresh tomatoes, onions and okra -- perfect for summer. Colorful and full of flavor, this dish takes advantage of summer's bounty.

The tomatoes should be just warmed through, the onions a bit crunchy and the okra tender and bright green. What a difference choosing young fresh okra can make -- maximum flavor, minimum goo.

You can serve this Carolina style with white rice and cornbread or you can give it a Creole taste by adding shrimp or chicken breast for a quick gumbo.

There are two ways to reduce the gooey or slimy inside. When you trim the ends, avoid puncturing the pod, and don't overcook the okra.

Sandra Pinckney, a former Baltimore TV journalist, hosts "Food Finds" on the Food Network.

Fresh Tomatoes and Okra

Serves 6

5 slices thick bacon

4 cups okra, washed, trimmed and sliced 1/2 -inch thick (I chose small ones)

1 large vidalia onion, cut into wedges about 1/3 -inch thick

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

4 medium heirloom or ripe juicy tomatoes cut into 1/2 -inch wedges (about 2 1/2 cups)

Cook bacon in a skillet until crisp. Remove bacon and reserve. Add sliced okra to skillet and cook (stirring frequently) in bacon drippings over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Add onion wedges, salt and pepper (continue stirring for 5 minutes). Toss in tomato wedges and reduce the heat to low. Cook partially covered until tomatoes are heated through, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve warm with bacon slices crumbled over.

Note: The okra should be tender and bright green, the onion still a bit crunchy and the tomatoes just warmed through.

Per serving: 77 calories, 4 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 292 milligrams sodium.

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