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Groundwork: Okra time

Okra needs a marketing campaign. Many people don't know this weird and wonderful vegetable. Those who do, find it slimy -- for avoidable reasons we'll explain. As a garden plant, okra is arguably the prettiest edible in the landscape. Now, at the height of the season, it is in full sail. The leaves are maplelike, but as much as 12 inches across, and the plants rise to seven feet or more on stems that are at least an inch thick. This from a little seed stuck in the ground in mid-May. Amazing. But the most gorgeous part of this plant for a gardener is the flower.

Okra pods grow in the leaf axils once the flowers drop. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

As you can see in the photo above, it reveals itself as a member of the hibiscus family. The blossom is extravagant without being blowsy, and a thing of beauty. It opens a rich lemon yellow with a deep magenta throat. The pistil is encased in pollen-bearing anthers.

Recipe Included

Native to Africa and purportedly brought over by slaves, okra is one of the few vegetables that can take the unrelenting heat of this awful summer we're having. This resilience, we should add, is contigent on cultivating a well-established root system by early July. Deep, rich soil and water are the basic ingredients.

At the American History Museum's Victory Garden, gardener Joe Brunetti and intern Nan Campbell have raised a robust and handsome stand of an antique variety of okra named Alabama Red. It shares the same traits as other popular red stemmed varieties such as Heirloom Red and Red Velvet. They develop a lovely rhubarb red glow to the stems and the leaf veins, and even the fruit can take on a blush, although usually when it's too old and tough.

Creme de la creme. The blossom of the okra. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Which gets us to nub of okra growing. As much as or more than any other garden vegetable, with okra the key is to harvest before the distinctive ribbed seed pods get anywhere near their mature size of six inches or longer. This may mean checking the plant every other day because we are now entering peak okra season when one happy plant could yield as much as a dozen pods a week. In this heat, the capsules grow an inch a day.

Joe takes a pod that is just two inches long, and says it will work raw in salads. Pods that are twice that long are optimum size for cooking. He removes a pod that has gone over, big, fibrous and a bit thorny, and thinks its only value in the kitchen would be to slice it, bread it and fry it. Cindy Brown is looking at this monster pod and shaking her head. "I wouldn't eat that," she chimes in. "It'll break your teeth."

Then there's the mistake of cooking them to death, at which point, Joe says, "they would turn into a mucilaginous mush."

Cindy chimes in again: "I just call it slime."

So picking them is like voting in old time Chicago: best done early and often. Alabama Red is also one of the stoutest of okra varieties; another reason to take the pods before they get dangerously large.

Too big, Joe. It'll break your teeth. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Joe's plants were started in a greenhouse in late March and set out in early- to mid-May, but direct sowing of seed in well prepared garden beds in May will bring you a harvest not too long after a greenhouse raised transplant. Joe spaces them 18 inches apart in a zigzag pattern, and he has six plants in one of his 12-foot-long raised beds. Cindy recommends staking each plant. A summer thunderstorm can flatten them a bit, and as with cornstalks, once they flop over they're a devil to prop up.

The leaves are full of stiff hairs and some varieties have prickles. Either way, some people are sensitive to the plant and may get a rash. Long-sleeve shirts and gloves are the way to go for those folks.

The effort is worth it. No other plant is quite as pretty in the garden or useful in the kitchen.

-- Adrian Higgins (Follow me on Twitter.)

Indian-Spiced Okra
4 servings

Last year, Groundwork featured the heat-loving veggie grilled and dressed in a tomato vinaigrette. Here, it is enrobed with a spicy hot, low-calorie Indian-inspired sauce.

Tender, but still al dente, the okra is an unusual side dish or a delightful vegetarian entree.

Adapted by Smithsonian garden education specialist Cindy Brown, from "The Complete Encyclopedia of Vegetables and Vegetarian Cooking," by Roz Denny and Christine Ingram (Hermes House, 1997).

2 small onions (may substitute 1 large onion, cut in half)
2 small jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut crosswise into thin slices
2 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
Finely grated zest and freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon (about 1 teaspoon of zest and 3 to 4 tablespoons' juice)
1 pound okra

Coarsely chop 1 of the onions and place it in a food processor, along the jalapeño slices, garlic and 1/4 cup of the water; pulse to a paste consistency. Add the cumin, coriander and ginger; process until well incorporated.

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Cut the remaining onion into thin slices, then add to the skillet. Cook for a few minutes, stirring.
As soon as the onion starts to turn a golden color, reduce the heat to medium; do not let the onion blacken. Transfer them to the paper-towel-lined plate.

If you haven't already done so, turn on the oven exhaust fan. The addition of the spiced onion mixture will be powerful.

Add the onion mixture and stir to incorporate; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the lemon juice and the remaining 1/4 cup water. Mix well, then add the okra and stir to coat. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the okra is tender.

To serve, place the okra on a bed of brown basmati rice. Top with the lemon zest and the fried onions.

Per serving: 90 calories, 3 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 26, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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