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Gummy, Slimy, Sticky: The Many Charms of Okra

September 02, 1993|FAYE LEVY

Around the world, it seems that a love for okra goes with a fondness for spicy food. The vegetable is popular in the Caribbean, Africa, India and the Middle East. Believed to have originated in Egypt, where okra remains a great favorite, it spread throughout Africa and was brought to the New World by slaves.

The okra dish most familiar to Americans is the celebrated Creole creation gumbo. Because this is a dish of many ingredients, we tend to associate the vegetable with complicated cooking. But okra can be used to make many quick, easy dishes.

The first time I cooked okra about 20 years ago, it came out gummy, and I wondered why this happened. When I asked a friend of mine from India what to do to prevent this, she asked: "Why would you want to do that? Okra's stickiness is part of its charm." I explained to her that for me and many other Americans, okra is most delicious when it does not have this slippery characteristic.

Years later, I learned that the culprit is the juice inside the okra. I have found three tricks that inhibit the stickiness: cooking it whole rather than sliced (so the juices don't come out), taking care not to overcook the vegetable, and avoiding much contact of the okra with liquid. Boiled okra is particularly sticky, even if cooked briefly.

The way I prefer to cook okra is by a Middle Eastern/Indian method. First saute okra, then add chopped tomatoes or a little water, and finish cooking the vegetable in a covered pan. Cooked gently with cumin, garlic and chiles or in a tomato sauce with peppers and coriander, okra makes a perfect accompaniment for chicken or meat.

Okra's meaty texture also makes it a satisfying vegetarian main course for serving with rice. In southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, okra is sometimes added to lamb or chicken stews toward the end of the cooking time.

Okra has plenty of nutrients--vitamins A and C, several B vitamins, calcium and potassium--and it contains only about 27 calories in eight cooked pods.

For the best okra, choose small, firm, deep-green pods. If they are more than three inches long, they are likely to be stringy and tough. You can keep the vegetable about three days in the refrigerator.

Okra comes in other forms besides fresh. In African stores you sometimes see dried okra, which has white pods strung together like an exotic necklace. In supermarkets you can find frozen okra, either sliced or whole. I find the frozen whole pods a satisfactory substitute for fresh okra in the following recipes, as long as you shorten the cooking time.

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In this easy recipe, the okra stews gently with garlic, peppers and tomatoes. Ground coriander and lemon juice give the sauce a pleasing tang. Using yellow peppers makes an especially pretty dish.

EGYPTIAN-STYLE OKRA WITH SWEET PEPPERS 1 pound okra 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil 1 sweet yellow, red or green pepper, cut into 3x1/4-inch strips 4 medium cloves garlic, minced 1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped Salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1/4 cup water 1 tablespoon strained fresh lemon juice

Rinse okra and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off okra stems without cutting into pods.

Heat oil in deep skillet over medium heat and add sweet pepper strips. Saute, stirring often, 5 minutes. Add garlic and okra and saute over low heat, stirring gently, 1 minute.

Add tomatoes and stir gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add coriander and water. Bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring gently from time to time, until okra is tender, about 25 minutes. Uncover and cook 5 minutes longer if sauce is too thin. Add lemon juice. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot, lukewarm or cold. Serve with rice. Makes 2 main course servings with rice or 4 side dish servings.

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This is a typical way of cooking okra in eastern Mediterranean countries. The garlic and cilantro give the dish a wonderful aroma.

\f7 OKRA WITH TOMATOES AND CILANTRO 2 pounds okra Extra-virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 5 medium cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, diced Salt, pepper Cayenne pepper, optional

Rinse okra and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off okra stems without cutting into pods.

Place 3 tablespoons olive oil in large, deep skillet or saute pan and heat over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and 1/4 cup cilantro. Saute, stirring often, until onion turns golden, about 5 minutes. Add okra and saute, stirring, 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Cook over medium-low heat until okra is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil and remaining 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and remove from heat. Season to taste with cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve hot, lukewarm or cold. Makes 6 side-dish servings.

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