In Season: Why okra is perfect for chicken file gumbo
The stone fruits like apricots and cherries heralded the perfect peaches of July. Those English peas planted back in March are over. Spring onions have been pulled. And if you haven’t discovered the joys of okra, now’s your chance. It’s in season.
It’s important to know that bigger is not better with okra. Look for young pods that are about 2 to 3 inches long. Not all varieties of okra get tough at longer lengths, but most do. Young pods will be tender and succulent. They should have no bruises or discoloration and have a soft, velvety feeling.
At the farmers’ markets you’re likely to find several types of okra. There’s a light lime-green variety, a medium green type, and best of all for flavor, in my opinion, a reddish type that keeps its color when cooked.
The flavor of okra recalls a little asparagus, a hint of artichoke and a touch of sweet pepper. Its salient feature is the sticky liquid its pods exude when cut, and it’s this substance that makes it so useful in enriching and adding body to rice-based stews.
I love the flavor of okra, but there’s a textural problem if it’s boiled. The sticky sap then becomes mucilaginous and slimy, and the subtle flavors dissipate in the boiling water. As a stand-alone side dish, I much prefer to cut it into coins and pan-fry it in a little olive oil over medium heat. This sizzles the mucilage, makes it crispy, and intensifies the flavor. It becomes extra special when it’s treated in the North African style, given a little help from cumin, tomato and lemon juice.
Okra makes a good partner with other crops that like hot weather. It pairs well with garlic, onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers, with spices like cumin and coriander, and with flavorings like lemon and parsley.
Okra is a relative of hollyhocks and ornamental mallows. It produces beautiful flowers that are pretty enough to star in an ornamental garden. They also can add color and pizazz to the vegetable garden. It’s native to Ethiopia, and found great favor in the cuisines of West Africa.
It came to North America with African slaves, and so gained a toehold in the American South. Today, one can hardly imagine southern cooking — especially in the Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana — without gumbos and stews thickened with okra.
Both the words “okra” and “gumbo” are of West African origin. “Okra” derives from the word Accra, the name of Ghana’s capital city, and “gumbo” comes from ngombo, an Angolan word for a similar dish.
Okra is nutritious. It’s a good source of vitamin C, and just a half cup of the vegetable contains about 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins B6 and folic acid. That half cup of cooked okra also contains two grams of soluble fiber in the form of gum and pectins, and good stores of insoluble fiber (what your grandmom called “roughage”) that helps protect against colorectal cancer.
Hank Williams sang the praises of this Cajun specialty (“… jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo …”) and justifiably so. Out of the heat, humidity and murk of the Louisiana bayous comes this most delicious stew imaginable. It takes some work, but it’s worth it. My suggestion: prep and cook this a couple of days before you plan to serve it so the flavors marry in the fridge. Serve it with ice cold beer.