Sunday, May 10, 2015

Okra: How to Grow, Cook, and Preserve It

Okra is not easy to find in supermarkets and outrageously expensive when you do find it. But, if you have dirt in all-day sun, a reliable water supply, and lots of hot days you can grow your own okra. The okra plant has large leaves and pretty hibiscus-like white or yellow flowers that would look good in a sunny flower bed.

Okra Flower

The widely sold "Clemson Spineless" okra is about four feet tall and three feet in diameter. If that's the wrong size, shop on the Internet for pot-sized dwarfs to grow on your patio or eight-foot tall monsters that can shade your patio. Read the plant descriptions carefully to make sure you have the size you need. The red or purple-podded varieties are decorative, but the pods turn green during cooking.

How much Okra to Plant? With 7 plants at their summer peak of production, I was harvesting a quart of pods every day. That's enough to cook more okra than I can stand, give some away, and freeze some for winter.

Storing Okra Pods.  The pods are delicate and bruise easily. Store them in a shallow container in a cool place with high humidity, such as the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator. They will last for a few days.

Okra Growing Instructions  Okra can't survive frost, so wait until you are sure the last frost for your area has passed before planting seeds or transplanting from pots. The seeds will not sprout unless soil temperatures are above 60°F.
  1. Soak the seeds in plain water for 24 hours to speed up germination.
  2. Plant groups of 2 or 3 seeds 1/2 inch deep and 18-36 inches apart in the hottest, sunniest location your landscape has. You can't give this plant too much heat, except maybe in Death Valley, CA. In humid climates, space the okra farther apart to decrease the chances of pods or blossoms rotting.
    For a head start, plant the soaked seeds in large seed-starting pots. I punch holes in fast-food drink cups and recycle them as plant pots. Put the pots in the warmest sunny indoors place you have. Transplant them when warm weather arrives. Be careful to not damage the fragile root system.
  3. Keep the dirt moist but not soggy. Within a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the soil temperature, the seeds will sprout. If you have a group of seedlings, when they have three or four leaves each, cut off all but the largest seedling to reduce the competition.
  4. Provide regular deep waterings. Okra is a tough, neglect-tolerant plant, but keep the soil moist for the highest pod production and tenderest pods. Mulch heavily to maintain soil moisture. Okra doesn't need much fertilizer, if any. Too much fertilizer in a humid climate leads to dense leaves and risk of rotting pods and blossoms because of poor air circulation.
  5. Ignore the ants. I don't know what ants do on okra blossoms, but they don't harm the plant.
Harvesting Okra: Okra begins to bloom about 60 days after the seeds sprout. Each blossom opens in mid-morning and withers by nightfall, leaving the seed pod. The pods are edible as soon as they appear, and stay tender in most varieties until they are three to six inches long. The hotter the weather, the faster the pods grow. In hot weather you may have to harvest every day.

Okra pods and buds

Harvest the pods by cutting the stem with your garden snippers. They are too tough to pinch or pull off. Do not leave pods on the plants because when the seeds in too many pods start to harden, that plant will stop producing blossoms. If you don't plan to eat the pods or if you find pods that are too large to be edible, cut them off and toss them in the compost heap.

If blossom production slows down or stops on a branch, cut the branch off near the base. New branches will develop on most okra varieties.

HARVESTING CAUTION: The tiny prickly hairs on the okra stems and leaves can irritate sensitive skin. Keep your hands away from your eyes and face while you are harvesting. Wash your hands and arms with soap and water after harvesting. If the irritation is severe, wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt.

After the Growing Season: Removing okra plants after they have stopped producing blossoms is not easy. They have a massive, root system that goes six feet or more into the dirt and a main stem bigger than many small trees. I use branch loppers or a chain saw to cut the stalk at the base. The roots will decay over the winter and the remnants of the stalk can usually be pulled out in the spring.

Saving Okra Seed.  Unless the okra is a hybrid, saved seeds will grow into the same variety. Leave a few pods on one or two branches of a few plants. When a pod is tan and beginning to split at the seams, harvest it. Break it open along the seams and remove the seeds. Put them in a labeled envelope for next year. The seeds will last several years.

If you are growing more than one variety of okra, you will have to protect the flowers from cross-pollination with other varieties. In the morning, put a large organza wedding favor bag over the blossom and pull the drawstrings shut to keep bees out. That the next day, tag the pod with the variety name and remove the organza bag. You can reuse the bags.

Cooking Okra.  Okra is almost calorie-free and a good source of various vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, cooked okra is synonymous with "slimy icky vegetable" in many people's minds. It doesn't have to be that way unless you want it to be. In small quantities, the complex polysaccharides (doesn't that sound better than "slime"?) add body to soups, curries and stews. If you want a thick vegan soup, add a couple of cups of sliced okra to it.

No-Slime Stir Fried Okra: Adding the pods to hot oil seals in the slime. Slice the pods crosswise into 1/4 inch slices and stir fry them with onions, garlic and other vegetables. Then sprinkle shredded mozzarella or Parmesan cheese on top and broil it to brown the cheese.

Preserving Okra. If you want to preserve okra for later, decide how you will be using it: fried or in soup.

Preserving okra for stir-frying: Cut fresh pods into 1/4 inch slices, shake the slices in cornmeal or flour, shake off the excess and freeze them in a freezer-proof bag. To cook the slices, just drop the still-frozen slices into hot cooking oil.

Preserving okra for thickening soup, stew or curry: Slice the fresh pods into 1/4 inch slices and freeze the slices in 1/4 or 1/2-cup quantities in a freezer-proof container with enough water to cover them. Dump the clump of frozen slices into the cooking pot.

Dehydrating okra: It is possible to dehydrate tiny okra pods or slices of larger pods. Add them to soups or stews to thicken the juices.

Pickled okra is supposedly easy to make and delicious. I have no personal experience with it.

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