Writing off okra as a slimy pod is a great injustice, according to Chris Smith. The garden writer and seed saver is an okra aficionado who asserts that while the vegetable may have a unique texture, it is a surprisingly versatile piece of produce.
Okra is a “seed-to-stem” food: the flowers and seed pods are edible; the seeds can be ground into flour or pressed for oil; and the stalk fibers can be made into paper or rope. In his new book, “The Whole Okra: A Seed To Stem Celebration” (Chelsea Green Publishing/2019), Smith describes all of the different products that can be made out of the plant, from okra seed tofu to multigrain okra sourdough bread. He worked with chefs, bakeries and other local businesses in the Asheville area to explore all that okra has to offer.
Smith also details the cultural history and lore of the plant. Host Frank Stasio talks to the author about where his passion for the mucilaginous green pods comes from, his tips for growing okra and his ongoing experimentation with the plant. Smith is the executive director of The Utopian Seed Project and serves on the board of The People’s Seed.
These recipes are from Chris Smith’s new book "The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration" (Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2019) and are reprinted with permission from the publisher.
by Chef BJ Dennis
Limpin’ Susan has often been called the wife (or sometimes cousin) of Hoppin’ John, the more famous dish of peas and rice traditionally made on New Year’s Day to ensure wealth and good luck for the coming year. Like Hoppin’ John, there are many variations of Limpin’ Susan, but they always include rice, shrimp, and okra, and often bacon. Gullah Geechee chef BJ Dennis shares this as a classic Charleston dish. In the Low Country and the Sea Islands, Limpin’ Susan is classically served over rice.
Peanut oil (or other favorite oil)
11⁄2 pounds (680 g) okra, sliced
1 pound (453 g) shrimp, peeled
1⁄4 pound (113 g) bacon, cooked and diced (optional)
2–3 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced chili pepper
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1⁄2 onion, diced
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Minced parsley, to taste
Minced thyme, to taste
Place a 10-inch (25 cm) cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add just enough oil to coat the bottom. Add the okra and cook until it begins to brown, stirring occasion- ally. (If the okra starts to stick, add more oil.) Add the next six ingredients, season with salt and pepper, and cook 5 minutes. Add the herbs to the skillet and cook until shrimp is ready, 2 to 3 minutes more. If desired, add more salt and pepper.
by Chef Marcus Samuelsson
I am pleased to include a recipe from Ethiopia because okra has its origins there. Chef Marcus Samuelsson has many culinary influences. Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson was adopted by and grew up in a Swedish family in Gothenburg. He now lives and cooks in New York City. You can see the Ethiopian influence in this recipe (from his book The Soul of a New Cuisine), which has similarities to the traditional Ethiopian okra dish Bamya Alicha. Samuelsson says this about the dish:
“People tend to either love or hate okra, which originated in Africa and spread to Arabia, Europe, the Caribbean, Brazil, India, and the United States. I happen to love it and think it adds great texture and color to meals, but I do remember being a little put off by its slimy texture the first time I had it. Once you get over that, it’s easy to like. Look for pods that are uniform in color, with no discoloration or soft spots. Smaller pods are usually more tender than large pods.”
11⁄2 pounds (680 g) okra, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 medium red onions, sliced
4 tomatoes, chopped
2 bird’s-eye chilies, seeds and ribs removed, chopped
1⁄2 cup (60 g) peanuts, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the okra and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the onions, tomatoes, chilies, and peanuts; sauté, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic, and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the okra and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season with the salt.