choosing fresh okra
The first dinner my husband made for me included okra and I knew that if that charming but geeky Indian bachelor could not only make dinner, but make Indian-styled okra well, he was a keeper. (Plus, he does my convoluted taxes too!) Since then, this vegetable has a special place in my heart and in our kitchen.
Okra is a member of the Hibiscus family, Malvaceae, which means there is a sticky sap running through the plant. This sticky gummy substance often deters people from using okra, something easily remedied by adding a sour agent (such as lemon juice or lime juice to the preparation, and leaving out all the water). Okra flowers are pale yellow in color and simple, showy and it can make a pretty addition to your garden, if you want to interplant it with other flowers and vegetables.
In addition to looking pretty and tasting fabulous, Ayurvedic practitioners believe that okra is beneficial to patients with ailments such as cholesterol, diabetes, stomach ulcers and digestive disorders.
I love a batch of fresh okra, one that is just picked and is still most from the dew of the fields. However, one does not always have a field to pick from. Good fresh okra suitable for Indian cooking is not difficult to find and many produce stores carry them. Unlike other cuisines, okra pods used in most Indian dishes are seldom stewed in a liquid – a process that helps tenderize most vegetables (barring a couple pachadi and kadhi recipes). The biggest drawback to frozen okra is the uneven cuts and the high water content on account of its frozen state. Frozen okra packets also most often include the tops and bottoms - parts of the okra frequently left out of Indian cooking.
So, always buy fresh.
When buying fresh okra, pick ones that are about as long as your fingers, anything less than 6”. In India, okra is often called 'Ladies Finger' or 'Lady Finger' in English - which is actually a great way to remember how to pick them. Okra is also called Bhindi in Hindi (Bhendi - Marathi, Bhinda - Gujarati.. and so on). The skin on fresh okra should be velvety, bright green and without bruises. Do not pick okra that appear browing or if the pod is rigid to touch (as opposed to firm - firm is good, rigid is not). Wash them quickly in cold water just before cooking them and wipe them down individually with a paper towel or dish towel to ensure they are *completely* dry. Trim away the top just under the crown and the bottom. Slice them into rings or lengthwise. Thinner segments or rings may burn quickly, so the rings should be no less than 1/8th inch in thickness. Check the seeds, if they are brown, the okra pod is old and must be discarded. Use cut pods immediately.
Okra cooked just right can be the most satisfying dish on your plate. Look for delightfully simple and flavorful okra recipes in my book: A Dozen Ways to Celebrate, including this one, for stuffed, batter-fried Okra!