I’ve written about okra in the past. It’s a go-to plant here in the South for deep frying as well as a thickening agent for gumbo. You may know “gumbo” or “kingombo” is a word coming from Africa, and many quarrel as to whether its origins are from the western part of that continent or Asia.
You’ll not find much argument that the plant made its way to our budding nation via the Atlantic slave trade, so at least we know where ours came from. But before the invention of the internet and its omniscience, most of us would swear okra arose from Louisiana.
I grew up with it fried at every opportunity. The gelatinous, gooey insides contrast with its fuzzy, itchy exterior, and for the better part of my life I couldn’t dream of any preparation other than the gumbo pot or the crispy fryer. When I moved here I saw how many Alabamians love their okra with stewed tomatoes. Of course pickled okra finds its way into a Bloody Mary every now and again. Nowadays we see so many other cooking methods, proving okra is far more versatile than my young, naïve mind could have accepted.
So as we near the end of fresh okra season, I thought I would have a chat with okra grower Tim Barnhill from Baldwin County, who provided me with almost more of the crop than I could handle this summer. Tim grew up on a farm, studied agriculture and farmed for 20 years. “And that was as long as I could afford to do it,” he jokes. It is evident he knows a thing or two about okra.
Tim Barnhill: Hot months. It doesn’t like the cool weather. Neither does cotton.
MacDonald: So what makes for a good okra crop or a poor one?
Barnhill: Well, it loves full sun on well-drained soil. No swampy areas. This summer I’ve had a hard time because it has been too wet. Too much rain seems to knock off the blooms and it’s not very productive.
MacDonald: What about common diseases or pests?
Barnhill: Around here worms rarely bother okra but this summer they have been bad. Usually stink bugs are the problem but they haven’t been too bad this year. Okra doesn’t seem to have a leaf disease but it can be affected by soil-borne bugs called nematodes.
MacDonald: But okra isn’t just okra. There are different plants like everything else, so what do you prefer?
Barnhill: We have a variety that we like called Clemson Spineless (an heirloom plant that continues to grow until fall with pods harvested at 3 inches) that is a little less sticky. We usually have to pick with gloves and long sleeves to keep from itching after we’ve rubbed up against the plants.
I’ve got a new variety from a friend in Louisiana that I love but I’ve got to give it another year because I planted too late.
Most people don’t like to pick okra. Only peas are worse, I guess. With okra it’s got to be done on a daily schedule. If you’ve not picked okra you need to experience it. It’s always hot and it stings your hands a little and makes you itch.
MacDonald: So what do you love about it?
Barnhill: Man, who doesn’t love fried okra? Okra actually freezes well. My grandkids just love it fried or boiled. It’s kind of funny watching them slurp up the stuff. Pickled okra is mighty fine but I don’t can it. My daughter is always begging for some.
So with Tim’s okra I couldn’t help but make a chicken and sausage gumbo. I also eyeballed a brown shrimp and okra stew recipe in John Besh’s “Besh Big Easy” cookbook. If you don’t have that one then drop what you’re doing and pick up a copy.
I was feeling a bit adventurous with my leftover raw okra and was in no need of a stew with so much gumbo on hand, so I decided to take a stab at dehydrating it for a snack. Long gone is my dehydrator. In the years right after college spent moving every 12 months I decided to stop toting the cumbersome specialty “oven,” and its cheap plastic frame found its way into the garbage can. A man can only prepare so much jerky before he loses his mind, and apricots are often hard to come by.
Without the dehydrator I was going to have to try the oven method. I have a gas oven that starts at 200 F, which is almost perfect. But there is an uncalibrated “warm” setting that better suits this experiment.
After washing and drying the okra I tossed the pods in a little extra-virgin olive oil. I arranged them in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet and seasoned them with a generous amount of salt.
Into the oven they went for three hours. No good. After six hours I checked again. No good. I then propped the door open, hoping any moisture would escape, and upped the temp to 200 F. They reached my desired crispiness at the twelfth hour.
You can Pinterest your way into a thousand recipes. Some blanch the okra and cut into thin strips. Some use whole pods and zero oil. What I found was that no matter what you do, these things don’t turn out too pretty, but they were delicious.
As we check back into school and the weather cools down, take advantage of the last of this year’s okra. Find a way to get creative if you have too much, but the classic recipes are here for a reason. Fry it when you can, but always, always make gumbo.