Okra, a summer staple with so much to share
Okra is a type of culinary education that is tied up in sturdy, fluted pods. Prepared with the right techniques, okra can take on crispy, silky, and stretchy textures that few ingredients can recreate. Learning how to approach okra in a creative way – by aligning with its use in the cuisines of Africa, Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East – can add complexity and flavor to your cuisine.
In North America, fresh okra is in season in spring and early summer. When ripe, its skin glows light green (but can even range from fuchsia to deep magenta) and the seed-filled pods feel plump and firm. Fresh okra pods have a subtle grassy scent and are best used within a day or two of purchase, as the pods can quickly become woody and fibrous.
The best way to approach this wonderful summer ingredient is to explore the techniques that highlight its best properties. If dredged in corn flour or dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried, okra develops a crispy shell that contrasts with its typically juicy interior. Quickly frying, searing, or grilling over high heat gives the crispness of a deep-frying process while the okra pods charring, which deepens their earthy taste.
Simmering Okra for Succotash, a dish that celebrates midsummer produce, brings chunky slices to full tenderness. In the northern Indian Bhindi Ki Sabzi, another one-pan mixture, okras are generously seasoned and fried until crispy. Grated or chopped okra pods, cooked in soups and stews, add body and thickness to the broth. In Nigeria this preparation is known as “pull-out soup” because it exemplifies the expression “long and drawn out”. Okra’s unique viscosity allows you to literally stretch your soup out of the bowl as it is spooned.
Finding pairings for okra is hardly a challenge. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, chillies and any other summer vegetable with a touch of acidity or a subtle sweetness harmonize effortlessly with the mildness of okra.
On top of the products, shrimp and okra are especially wonderful together as they balance each other’s best qualities. In lighter soups, okra complements sweet and salty prawns with its slightly bitter kernels. In stews, they can be structural opposites: the shrimp persistently hold their shape while the absorbent skin of the okra dissolves and it becomes part of the broth.
For this quick dish from a pan, you only need one technique – and you will master it: perfect searing. Okra gets a nice roasted edge in a hot, oiled pan. The prawns absorb the sazón sprinkled on top, and both are cooked just long enough to be tender. Rounded off with chopped coriander and a splash of fresh lime juice, the dish becomes a new summer classic.
To enjoy the okra beyond the high season, put it in and improve its smooth taste in the process. Or dry slices or whole pods in an oven or dehydrator for a crispy snack that can be topped with a variety of salty condiments. With proper storage, both preparations allow you to extend the life of the okra until the harvest is ready next year.