I always hated okra. The name itself sounds too much like orc, ogre, or Orgoch, one of the witches of Morva from The Black Caldron series. It is a word with open ends and sharp middle, a grunt, more likely a growl. Nothing good can come from a word like that. “Best be home before dark or the Okra may get you . . . “
In my defense, my first introduction to okra was not a pleasant one. My grandfather, who could grow anything in his small, but fertile garden had asked me to “pick a mess” of okra for dinner and showed me where it grew. The slightly fuzzy pods looked innocuous enough, but as I began breaking the pods off their stalks with my lack of fine motor skills, some of them would break open and my hands began to itch. I’m not sure if it was from the tiny hairs on the outside of the pods or the mucinous liquid within, but by the time my colander was full, my hands were itchy and covered in a seedy slimy mess.
Okra has internal chambers full of seeds which is fine for most people; unless you have a mild case of trypophobia (fear or disgust of a pattern of holes as in a wasp nest or sponge) which I did, or are a picky eater (morally opposed to most things green or with texture) which I was. Due to an unfortunate incident years earlier that involved my tricycle and an egg-laden cockroach, I also had a revulsion for anything resembling insect eggs and so the very sight of the broken pods was a bit nauseating. When I realized that this okra was going into a casserole that would be served with my grandmother’s fried chicken for dinner, I got a wee bit faint. Thankfully, my grandfather did not make me eat it and despite my mother’s protest, I was excused from the table after I ate some chicken, sliced tomatoes, and a deviled egg.
I never understood my father’s absolute delight for a plate of fried okra, but slowly over the years I began to realize that many people actually enjoyed eating it in a number of ways. I eventually got over my childhood of okra-induced terror and tried to use it in a few dishes as an adult, but wasn’t terribly successful. The amount of mucus those darn little pods could produce in a pot of gumbo that was left sitting for a day or two still left me a bit unsettled.
Last year, however, I was at the NC Farmer’s Market and an older woman at the stand where I usually get my vegetables saw me looking at the bags of okra on the table. She must have recognized the mixture of curiosity, confusion, and disgust on my face and decided to help.
“You know”, she said, “that fresh okra there is the best thing on the grill. Just some oil and salt and get some grill marks on it. No need to overdo it.”
And I felt my world turning around. No need to cut them open. No need to be forced to witness their patterned holes and copious seeds. Just put them on the grill and soften them up. The mucus cannot escape. You don’t really have to touch them. Just grill and eat. Just like that, I’ve been made a convert.
The truth is, okra is a rather mild vegetable. It has an almost grassy flavor and is similar to green beans and eggplant. When grilled, it maintains a bit of its crunch while becoming sweeter and even a bit smoky depending on whether or not you are using charcoal. One cup of okra has 33 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein. It is rich magnesium, folate, fiber, antioxidants, and vitamin C, K1, and A.
I am still not a big fan of the name, but I am a much bigger fan of okra occasionally being on the dinner table. Like most difficult vegetables, the key to enjoying them is to get them as fresh as possible and prepare them as simply as possible. My love/hate relationship with jalapenos requires an entirely different approach, but we’ll talk about that later.