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by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary

In Bahia, the state most suffused with its African past, the night air throbs with the heartbeat sounds and rhythmic chanting of the Candomble. Among the rituals of this cult, whose deities are combinations of African Gods and Christian saints, is one in which okra pods are ceremoniously cut up and prepared with liberal amounts of voodoo magic. The next day, at the outdoor waterfront marketplace, okra sits quietly beside the other vegetables - the manioc and hot peppers and sweet potatoes- but it never quite regains its innocence. There's something exotic about okra, now and forever.

A member of the hibiscus family, okra produces bright yellow flowers like the cotton plant to which it is related. Okra was brought to the new world from Africa along with watermelons and pigeon peas as part of the slave trade. Its African name - kingumbo- became identified with the dish in which it was used (gumbo) both for its taste and for its thickening properties. The word okra comes from the Twi language on Africa's Gold Coast, where the vegetable is called Kurama. Some people object to okra's mucilaginous quality, but this can be diminished by cooking the vegetable in acidulated water.

Okra remains an important ingredient throughout the American South, where it is blanched and sauced, made into succotash with ham hocks, cornmeal-coated and deep fried, pickled, cooked with tomatoes and corn,
steamed and frittered. When it is sliced, its star-like cross sections look unique and inviting in salads. Even outside the South, okra is found fresh in many produce markets throughout the country these days, especially in Middle Eastern, Greek, or Indian specialty markets. With a paste of garlic and coriander, it makes a famous Lebanese hors d'oeuvre, bamieh bi zayt. An Indian variety, bendi-kai is often cooked like asparagus or made into a pickle. Okra is used in Greek pilafs, chopped meat dishes, and lamb stews. The seeds, which can be roasted and brewed for a coffee-like drink, are crushed for oil in some parts of the world.

By far the easiest to pronounce okra dishes come from the Caribbean: these are foo-foo, an African name for the color of the mixture; and coo-coo, from the African word for "mush".

Consumer and Cooking Guide

Market Selection
Green and red. Okra should be deep green or red in color, firm, unblemished and 2-3 inches long.

Year round; peak is June through August

Refrigerate, unwashed, in a plastic or paper bag for up to 5 days.

Flavor Enhancers
Garlic, thyme, sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, oregano

1 pound=2 cups, sliced

Nutritional Value
Good source of vitamin C and potassium; 45 calories per cup

Cooking and Handling Notes
If okra is to be cooked whole, cut the stems without piercing the pods, to lessen sliminess.

Fried Okra with Spicy Tomato Sauce


4 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 sprigs fresh cilantro
salt and pepper

1 1/2 pounds okra, sliced
1/2 cup milk
Cornmeal for dredging
1/2 cup vegetable oil

In a medium saucepan combine all of the sauce ingredients. Cook over medium heat, until thick, about 20 minutes. Dip the okra into the milk and then dredge in cornmeal. In a large skillet heat the oil; add the okra. Cook about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel. Serve warm, with tomato sauce.
Serves 6.

Okra, Corn and Tomato Gratin

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 pound okra, sliced
2 cups corn kernels
3 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 10 inch round baking dish. In a large skillet, heat the oil. Saute the garlic, onion, and pepper until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the okra and corn; cook for another 8 minutes.
Add the tomato and thyme and cook until the tomato breaks down, about 4 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper and pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Combine the bread crumbs and cheese and sprinkle over the vegetables.
Dot with butter and bake 20 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.
Serves 6 as a side dish.

Gumbo with Tasso Ham, Seafood, and Tiny Shells

3 tablespoons oil
1/4 pound Tasso ham or any other well seasoned ham, diced
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon paprika
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 pound okra, sliced
1 cup tiny pasta shells
1 pound prawns, shelled
1/2 pound cooked crabmeat
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

In a large saucepan heat the oil. Cook the ham, onion, garlic, celery and carrot until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the thyme, paprika, flour and tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the broth; bring to a boil and reduce heat. Add the okra and shells. Simmer, partially covered, 15 minutes.
Add the prawns and crabmeat and cook for three minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in parsley.
Serves 6.

Jeannette & Louise are Bay Area freelance food writers and the authors of several books including Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries, A Good Day for Soup and A Good Day for Salad.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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