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In Season: Why okra is perfect for chicken file gumbo

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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.

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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.

Chicken File Gumbo

Makes 4-5 servings

2 teaspoons ground cayenne

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 tender young chicken cut into 2 thighs, 2 legs, 2 breasts

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup okra pods, cut into coins

½ cup chopped celery

½ cup chopped onions

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, quartered and seeded, juice strained and reserved

½ cup chopped green bell pepper

7 cloves garlic, minced

2 quarts fat-free, low-salt chicken stock

12 ounces raw andouille sausage

1 cup cooked long-grain white rice

½ cup chopped scallions

— Tabasco sauce

1 teaspoon file powder (Oliver’s Markets or online)

5 fresh chive spears

Put the cayenne, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper into a paper bag with no holes and shake to mix.

Wipe the chicken pieces all over with a piece of paper towel lightly dipped in the olive oil and add them to the bag and shake. Open the bag and add ½ cup of the flour and shake again.

Add about 4 tablespoons of olive oil to a large skillet and heat to gentle- medium. If it smokes, it’s too hot. Shake excess flour from chicken pieces and brown them in the skillet on all sides, about 5 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. Remove chicken pieces and set them aside.

Add the okra to the skillet, turning with a spatula until they are sizzling and cooked through, about three to five minutes. Remove the okra from the skillet and set aside.

Add the remaining olive oil to the skillet, scraping loose the browned bits with a spatula. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the remaining half cup of flour to the skillet, stirring constantly so the flour doesn’t stick to the pan or burn. Stir the roux as it bubbles and after about 5 minutes, when it turns a light reddish brown, remove the skillet from the heat and add celery, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and garlic, stirring until the roux stops bubbling.

Scrape the contents of the skillet into a large soup pot. Deglaze the skillet with some chicken stock and add that to the soup pot. Add the reserved tomato juice. Add the remaining chicken stock to the pot and whisk to mix.

Bring the soup pot to a full boil on high heat, then immediately reduce heat to a simmer, add the okra and the chicken pieces and simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and set aside. Slice the sausage into thin coins and add them to the pot. Add the cooked rice and simmer for 15 minutes, until the sausage is cooked through.

While the sausage and rice are simmering, separate the chicken meat from the skin, bones and gristle. Pull the meat into bite-sized pieces. When the sausage is cooked through, add the chicken meat back to the pot along with the scallions. Taste. If too mild, add a few shakes of Tabasco sauce until the soup gives a gentle warm glow to the mouth.

Cover the soup, turn off the heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Refrigerate it for two days so the flavors can marry.

Just before serving, add file powder and reheat over gentle to medium-low heat, stirring often, until it’s hot. Chop the chives into bits and sprinkle some on top of each serving bowl.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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