My husband is the magic behind our garden. It was his idea to begin growing our food the first summer we owned a home, all those years ago. He is the planner and planter. I’m the second-wave worker, on maintenance and harvest.
But every now and then, I pipe up with a suggestion. What about arugula, I muse? Or let’s plant some mint. He’s an easy-going guy. Honestly, I don’t think he’s ever said “no.”
He did raise his eyebrows this summer, though, when I declared I’d like to tend a stand of okra.
My husband hails from Massachusetts, a land where they eat butternut squash, not sweet potatoes; polenta, not grits; and nothing that even comes close to the crazy fast-growing seed pods that are the beloved Southern staple, okra.
He made it clear from the get-go that this okra business was all mine.
I didn’t grow up eating okra at the dinner table either. But I’ve gobbled my share at many a South-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line diner dive. Which, it turns out, is not the same as having to figure out what to make of your okra once its spears start stacking up on the kitchen table.
Okra is an ancient food, having been first documented in Egypt in the 1200s, but likely cultivated long before. It’s thought to have come to the New World aboard slave ships and it thrives in hot, hot weather. It also, conveniently, doesn’t need much rain and even enjoys the hard clay soil that is common in my Southwest Virginia backyard.
It is a beautiful plant. I’d recommend it even if you never pick a stem from the stalk. Related to rose of sharon and hibiscus, its bright white flowers bloom in the morning then wilt by noon. They were easily the cheeriest thing growing in our yard during this summer’s searing August.
But I was not prepared for what was coming when I began to see baby pods emerging from the plants.
I have since learned that you’ve got a week — tops — from when a yellow blossom appears until your okra must be picked — and ideally — eaten. There is no letting the beans go for a few more days on the stalk or baking your zucchini into bread after one overgrows. Once the okra pod becomes woody and fibrous, it’s good for little other than providing seed for next year’s crop or maybe a table decoration.
I waited too long for my first picking and even though we chose a lovely recipe and grilled the veggies to a satisfying sear, the okra was inedible, impossible to chew.
At least my disappointment led to a new discovery.
Seeing as how I was absolutely not going to toss all my hard work, I slit open the pods and happened upon something I never knew about okra. Inside that crenelated skin are these amazing, corn-like kernels. They are nutty and smokey and give a pleasing pop when chewed. I promptly cut open all my overgrown pods and scooped out the seeds like the delicacy I now knew they were.
As I crunched along, I wondered: Why has no one ever served these to me before?
Over the weeks of harvest, I learned to pick my okra while it was still young and tender. But I took heart in knowing that if I found a fruit that had been missed, I could always eat the seeds. My favorite way became grilling or roasting the overgrown okra, scooping the seeds, then adding them to a bowl of brown rice and veggies, topped with teriyaki sauce.
The kids, of course, loved the okra fried. And who wouldn’t? With a little buttermilk and cornmeal, browned in coconut oil, fried okra is can’t-eat-just-one kind of good.
But for me, the real star of our harvest was the gumbo. Ohmygosh was that gumbo good! I chose a nontraditional recipe that roasted the okra first and cooked all the veggies less than is called for in many a Southern stew.
Several weeks into okra eating, I was starting to get something of a revolt at the table so I began to look at ways to freeze my extras. Blanch it, my books said.
Never again, I tell you.
Okra, slow cooked in any way, becomes soggy and sticky. I had often heard okra described as “slimy,” though until I tried to blanch it, I didn’t truly get that.
Even though I boiled my okra only 3-4 minutes. Even though I lifted it right out and plunged it in ice water, slimy is exactly what it was. With a capital “S.” Slipping out of my hands as I pulled it from the sink.
That was the end of that.
But overall, what an okra adventure! Which is one of the biggest joys of planting a garden in the first place, isn’t it? The garden — like the kitchen — is a place to experiment. To learn. To try. To fail. To try again. Each year is a fresh start, a chance to push into a new territory, to sample something I’ve never tasted before.
I can tell you, despite the too-tough-to-chew pods and the slime of the blanched version, I’ll be asking my husband to plant those okra seeds again next year.
After this year’s good eating, he probably won’t even look at me funny.