Posted On: 07/01/2010
Mid-June, when the summer sun blazes and night temperatures graze just a hair cooler, Justin Keay of North County Produce Co. direct-seeds his okra crops. “Okra’s an African plant,” he said. “It thrives best when the weather’s ugly-hot.” By mid-August, he’ll harvest extra-small pods to add to Asian stir-fries.
He steams the pods lightly before tossing them in the wok, giving them a “more definite okra flavor because it’s not cooked so much,” he said. “We like okra and eggplant in a plum sauce. Okra with whatever vegetables we harvest cooked in a toasted sesame oil is great, too.”
Keay and his partners Tina Smugala and Clinton Drake have been selling at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market only since last summer. The desire to bring only the freshest vegetables to market drives the trio to extraordinary lengths. “We get to the fields at 3:30 Saturday morning to harvest for market that day,” he said. “We use headlamps to see what to pick.”
Keay’s attention to detail fuels his seed-selection process as well. This year, he’ll sell the short and stout Star of David. “I want to make okra poppers, like jalapeno poppers, so I looked for a roomier pod to stuff.” Other selections include Alabama Red and Thai, a longer, slimmer variety.
Like Keay, Richie Hahn of Hahn Farm chooses his seeds thoughtfully, from trusted sources including Baker Creek, Willhite and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. He was a 2-year-old toddling around the fields when his parents bought the property in 1992. He’s been growing things ever since at the Foley, Mo., farm and greenhouses.
This year, he’s planted 20 different varieties of okra. “Probably 90 percent of the okra grown in this country is Clemson spineless,” Hahn said, “but I’ve always liked trying the heirlooms and new varieties.”
Hahn is a fan of the red okras, offering Bowling, Burgundy, Alabama Red and others whose names he couldn’t recall. Watch for Hill Country, an heirloom green striped with red. He’s got lighter green Thai long varieties, too. Deep-ribbed, dark green, fat and squat, extralong, supershort – Hahn’s okra varieties will be available at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market July through frost.
If you haven’t tried okra, the taste is earthy, sweet and nutty. Cooked in soups and stews, okra acts as a thickener. A common complaint is the slick texture of cooked okra, unkindly referred to as slimy. But unless it’s wildly overcooked, I don’t object to the texture.
I like to snip the tips after washing, then blanch for one to two minutes, depending on the size, before dumping them in an ice-water bath. The color pops and the pods stay a little crisper. You can slice, dice and fry a little quicker once they’re blanched.
Traditional gumbos are great, but okra’s got more versatility as a veggie. A light and fluffy fritter with crispy bites of okra tasted great. Mixed greens topped with layers of tomatoes, green onions and steamed, julienned okra pods with a lemon vinaigrette make a memorable summer salad. Sautčed in peanut oil with red onions, tomatoes, peanuts, lots of garlic and hot chiles, an okra side dish from an African cookbook really stood out.
“We like to bread them whole and fry them,” Hahn said, “or just slice them, then fry in butter with corn and green beans. We like it pickled, with dill.”
Brett Palmier of Biver Farm likes okra blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and then battered and fried, like squash blossoms. He’ll offer Clemson spineless, the workhorse okra, at area markets including Clayton, Maplewood and the new downtown market. You’ll find Clemson spineless at Chartrand Farms’ stand at Soulard, too.
If you haven’t tried okra, give it a whirl.
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